Few words strike fear into the hearts of wide swaths of the theatre-going population than ‘Audience Participation.’ But when said participation involves sipping champagne, swanning around a mansion in Dupont Circle, watching fire spinners perform in the snow, and solving puzzles with strangers, that pill becomes a lot easier to swallow. Thus is the experience created by TBD Immersive in their new interactive performance piece, Ouroboros: Dawn of the Cabaret.
Ouroboros is the capstone of a trilogy of immersive plays taking place in the same fictitious world. Founded in 2016 by Producing Artistic Director Strother Gaines, Tradition Be Damned (TBD) Immersive presented In Cabaret We Trust at Blind Whino in 2017 and Cabaret Rising in Dupont Underground in 2018. Having not seen the previous two installments in the series, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow the plot threads of Ouroboros.
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Luckily, Ouroboros is actually a prequel to the other two plays, showing the origins of the universe in which the other two shows took place, and the work stands on its own. In chatting with fellow audience members who had seen the previous shows, it was clear their familiarity with the prior installments gave them fun Easter eggs to recognize, but seeing them is certainly not a prerequisite to enjoying this play.
The premise for the evening is that the audience has been invited to the home of James (Don Myers) and Marilena Westcott (Karen Lange), for a birthday celebration for James’s twins, Astrid (Nerissa Hart) and Drew (Marshall Bradshaw). The fete is tinged with more than a bit of melancholy, however, as it is also the anniversary of the twins’ mother, Elizabeth’s, death at this very same party one year prior.
As you chat with various guests and house staff, it becomes clear that there’s tension outside of the home as well. The Republic, an authoritarian regime, is consolidating power while the Resistance is forming underground in an attempt to stop it from happening. This heady blend of intrigue and shifting alliances spills into the home as representatives of the government, secret societies, and the insurgency mix and mingle behind fake smiles.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, well, that’s just the beginning. As an audience member, it’s up to you to join a side and undertake quests at the request of your fellow guests. There are at least three or four paths you can take, which is exciting, but can also lead to wide variations in not just the content, but also the quality of the experience amongst audience members.
For instance, my guest and I started out on one track at the beginning of the evening, but then unintentionally switched halfway through, meaning we never really got the whole story for either path. As we watched a climactic fight play out in front of us, for example, we had no clue what was going on, because the inciting event occurred upstairs while we were down in the basement. While this is realistic in terms of how things actually work at real-life parties, it did create some moments of confusion that weren’t always of the fun and intriguing variety. Perhaps a slightly more streamlined narrative arc may have led to certain attendees not being left out in the proverbial cold.
Ouroboros: Dawn of the Cabaret
closes March 2, 2019
Details and tickets
This is not the say that I didn’t enjoy my time at the Wescotts’ abode; in fact, I had a marvelous evening. This is due in large part to the wildly talented cast, who almost universally nailed both their scripted scenes and 2+ hours’ worth of improvised interaction. Lange ate up the role of the despised stepmother with the suspiciously short courtship and abrupt elopement, and was liable to break into song at any moment (much to the chagrin of many of the other characters). Bradshaw’s Drew practically vibrated with nervous energy, while Hart’s Astrid hid her cunning and desperation to get to the bottom of what really happened to her mother behind a ditzy, party girl façade.
The Whittemore House proved to be the ideal venue for this performance, offering three levels of indoor and outdoor space for the cast and audience to play with. From the fortune teller in the parlor to the burlesque dancer in the ballroom to the fire performers working their magic in the garden, there was always something to engage with and admire. Despite the mansion’s sprawling nature, the cast managed to create small moments of genuine intimacy and delight. For example, my guest and I and about five other people were treated to a stunning command performance by Angelique (Chaseedaw Giles) in a linen closet in the basement barely big enough to fit us, in what turned out to be the most memorable moment of the evening.
Many theatre companies have mission statements that include nods to breaking down the fourth wall and inviting the audience to participate in the creation of the work, but few have made good on this promise to such a high degree. With Ouroboros, TBD Immersive has created an event that is impressive in both its scope and its nuance, and in doing so, has filled a vital niche in the DC area theatre landscape. I, for one, am excited to see where they lead audiences next.
Ouroboros: Dawn of the Cabaret. Core Cast: Don Myers, Karen Lange, Nerissa Hart, Marshall Bradshaw, Marissa Goodstone, Emily Collins, Rachel Messbauer, Amanda Haddock, Rikki Frohmader, Melanie Boyer, and Keenan Gibson. Fabric Cast: Erick Acun?a, Chaseedaw Giles, Annetta Dexter Sawyer, Nell Quinn-Gibney, Natasha Preston, Leo Delgado, Dakota Schuck, Frances Bagette, Catherine Deadman, Heather Marie Vitale, Cate Minichino, Daniel Riker, Beth Lyons, and Kristin Zeldes. Cabaret Performers: Peculiarity Productions performers, DivaFit performers, Francesca Armino, Bearcat Betty, Delilah Dentata, Elise Foste,r Dean Hively, Samantha Kacos, Christian Kloc, and Tricia Melka. Producing Artistic Director: Strother Gaines. Producing Improvisational Director: Dana Malone Heiser. Devising Playwright and Producing Story Director: Jenny Splitter. Quest Designers: Marshall Bradshaw and Nerissa Hart. Associate Producer: Marissa Goodstone. Props Artisan: Colleen Parker. Costuming: Deborah Lash. Marketing Lead: Alysa Turner. Produced by TBD Immersive. Reviewed by John Bavoso.
This article was produced as part of the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of Day Eight conducted in partnership with DC Theatre Scene through the support of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.