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The number of shows I’ve been to that claim to be immersive are many.
The number of shows I’ve been to that actually are immersive, in one way or another, are few.
The number of shows that I’ve been to that sweep you up into a world so complex, so narratively tight and visually arresting and thematically overwhelming that you actually become so invested in the characters whose journeys you’re running like a maniac around some half-creepy, half-awe-inspiring space to follow while suffering heart-pounding FOMO that you’re missing an equally arresting scene in another room across a hallway, while eerie music echoes in either your ears or a dark corner of your brain you never knew existed, is exactly three.
Two of them were Punchdrunk shows. The third is The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe.
Mercifully plotting its return after its sold-out run in Baltimore, Revelations is the kind of show you spend four hours on a Boltbus and a night in a possibly-haunted dilapidated guesthouse to go see.
So what the hell actually happens?
You’re all hypnotized. You’re in a mansion (actually Baltimore’s historic Enoch Pratt House) peopled by mysterious residents, which if you know your Poe might be familiar to you. There’s a detective called Auguste (Dupin? – but in real life Alexander Scally), who uses Poe’s intoxicatingly twisted language of hyperrationality to solve a series of murders – but is baffled by questions of his own identity. There’s a childlike, effervescent actress, Eliza (Jenna Rossman) who shares a name with Poe’s mother and several of her lines with Hamlet’s Gertrude, a child-bride prone to painting herself with fatal-seeming white powder (Natanya Washer)
a mesmerist who often seems half-mesmerized herself (Shannon Graham), an androgynous barkeeper prone to reciting Titus Andronicus while playing with model puppets (J.R. Baker), and V., the wild card, who is either somebody’s double or a murderer or being framed for murder or Poe himself. You can follow any or all of none of them around the house’s rooms; none of the action loops or repeats; and you may be called upon to summon a ghost.
What makes Revelations so powerful is that it’s possible to understand very little of what is going on in this fever-dream of a world and yet to have complete confidence that the actors do, and that every decision makes narrative sense. When the mesmerist asks you if you’re asleep, when Eliza distracts you from what may be a murder scene by making you play a childish game of holding your breath, when a possibly-dead Virginia solicits your help in haunting audience members at a séance, when you’re asking Auguste questions at a lecture on rationality that start to make him doubt his own existence, when V. begs you to help him find a way out of this house, you have complete faith that the performers (directed by Glenn Ricci and Susan Stroupe) are no less fully immersed in the narrative world Revelations creates than its audience. All of the performers sell every moment absolutely, even when their overall meaning is not quite clear.
Though Revelations is brilliantly dreamlike – there’s a scene involving Gertrude’s speech on Ophelia’s death and some spot-on sound design (also by Ricci) that will give you nightmares – it never seems to fall back on “dream logic”: a sense that set-pieces or scenes are taking place because they’re cool or look good or spooky and any logical or character-based inconsistencies can be handwaved away on the grounds of phantasmagoria. This is an immersive world that works – the kind where if you came back twenty times (and if you live in Baltimore, you really should) you’d be able to piece together a coherent mystery and still find more layers to discover.
It’s smart, too, with storylines that transcend popular Poe-vian clichés of “beautiful dead virgin” and “hyperrationalist who may be insane” (to be fair, Poe didn’t always transcend them, either). The dialogue – drawn heavily but not exclusively from Poe’s texts (as well as some Shakespeare) – is believable, engaging; Auguste’s realization that he is nothing more a character in a Poe tale raises existential dread as well as Gothic unheimlich.
It’s easy, in this era of “immersive” shows that are actually promenade shows, or shows where you’re watching the action from a single vantage point but simply standing up instead of sitting in a comfortable chair, or shows that let you drink while watching them, to forget how transformative, how exhilarating, losing yourself in a world for an hour or two or three really is. When the mesmerist starts to count down from ten, and challenge you to delve into your most closely-guarded secrets – then, you’ll remember.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.