This interactive theatrical experience struggles to transform the escape room genre.
Photo by Caleb Sharp
The Virgil Corporation is not what it seems. You have already received messages pointing out their suspicious history, and for whatever reason, they have set their sights on discovering the elusive "escape gene." And you're their latest test subject.
Brought to you by creator/director Michael Counts and multi-media design and production company BeSIDE, PARADISO: Chapter 1 is a 60-minute noir-styled, futuristic nightmare that audiences must navigate through, ten willing victims at a time. The experience is a fusion of the "escape room" adventure, in which participants work together to break codes and reason their way out of a locked room, and an immersive theater production where each actor you encounter provides another piece of the puzzle. Together, the group of ten participants either escape from the mysterious trap the Virgil Corp. has placed them in, or...not.
Unfortunately, the storytelling in PARADISO: Chapter 1 is muddled at best, leaving audiences unsure who they are supposed to be and what their stakes are. Information regarding the resistance effort, who the actors telling you not to trust the corporation are and what they are working toward is likewise lacking. This reviewer's group diffused a bomb in time and were led into an empty hallway with only the guidance that the performers would "be in touch," leaving the team confused as to whether we succeeded or not.
From locks left unopened to a lack of continuity in the narrative from room to room, participants must guess which bits of what they learn are important. And unlike in a traditional escape room where the group is left to its own devices, the clues in PARADISO are more theatrical and interactive but ultimately less satisfying to solve. Once an actor has entered the room, it becomes counterproductive to do anything besides listen to them.
Still, the live performance elements are by far the highlight of this production, from the opening survey in the Virgil Corp. office to the dying man on the floor at the end. The security cameras displaying what is occurring in the other rooms of the escape game are likewise entertaining and innovative, providing a glimpse into other pieces of the puzzle and expanding the world of the piece.
Navigating PARADISO in groups of ten more or less guarantees that some of your fellow group members will not be people you know, and without an energetic and engaged team, the experience as a whole falls flat. But regardless of whether individual participants are expert codebreakers or step up when a disembodied voice puts them on the spot, the piece needs a definitive ending that lets audiences know just what they have experienced.
Other missing elements include a stronger attempt to frame the experience as something other than an "escape room," what any of this has to do with Dante's The Divine Comedy and—most importantly for an active theatrical experience opening in late July in New York City—air conditioning. The text messages participants receive in the days leading up to their escape are a delightful and creative introduction into the world, but the experience itself does not live up to those expectations.
Hopefully PARADISO: Chapter 1 will improve as more audiences navigate through and expose its flaws. As it stands now, the Virgil Corporation is more likely to inspire confusion than fear.
PARADISO: Chapter 1 plays at an undisclosed location in Koreatown.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.