By Betsy Isaacson
Produced by Sinking Ship Creations
Off Off Broadway, Interactive Theatre
Ran through 11.16.18; Returns in March 2019
Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airman’s Club, 283 Lexington Avenue
by Asya Gorovits on 11.26.18
Photo courtesy of Sinking Ship Creations.
BOTTOM LINE: A World War II–era bureaucratic thriller forces you to make uneasy choices while helping “undesirables” escape persecution.
Who would you rather save from the Nazis, a 10-year old orphan or Jewish mathematician Jacques Solomon Hadamard? The participants of Escape from Marseilles, a LARP (live action role playing game) produced by Sinking Ship Creations, not only have to make many similar decisions but also confront each other over them.
The year is 1940, and the place is an American embassy in Marseilles, France, where ten members of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) are hard at work helping at-risk populations to escape the Nazis and its puppet Vichy government. And although everybody is here ultimately for the same reason—to save as many people as possible—their priorities differ. Some are ready to fight for any surrealist artist, while others lobby for political activists or children. With limited resources and the constant threat of capture or death, the underground rescue committee has to continue its mission and put their differences aside.
Nine characters are cast a few days prior to the show based on a questionnaire. So when you enter the library at the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airman’s Club, you already know who you are, what you stand for and also have some information about the other members in the committee. Since Escape from Marseilles is based on real events and all characters are historical figures, some research might help to build a convincing character. Upon entry everybody is handed an envelope with his or her character description. So even if you didn’t do your homework you will still have a few minutes to “arrive.”
The moment of transition from the outside world to the game is a little awkward. It can be tricky for the facilitator (Allegra Durante, portraying Varian Mackey Fry, director of operations) to bring together people with LARP experiences varying from “none” to “professional.” But the pre-show correspondence already lays a solid foundation, so the facilitator can just build upon it, explaining the rules from within the game.
The bumpy start aside, the experience is dynamic and thoughtfully paced. The sporadic rhythm is dictated by the tide of paperwork arriving. Dossiers of people seeking refuge and offers of rescue come in packages and it’s up to the committee to pair people with “exits.” ERC not only has to consider the priority amongst candidates but also the dangers and costs of the ways out, some of which are visas, others offers from smugglers. The unofficial offers tend to be time sensitive, putting additional pressure to get people out the door, to the secret drop-off location around the block. During the drop-off missions, to which committee members go in pairs, they might encounter somebody. This inclusion of outside space and involvement of additional characters makes the experience even more thrilling.
Occasionally people receive personal correspondence and phone calls from “the outside world” which they might choose to share or keep to themselves. Secrets work as kindling for suspicion, and it’s only natural to become paranoid in this highly suspenseful espionage drama—as did my character, Albert Hirschman, the only Jew and the only German in the room. Interactions with other participants can spark all sorts of reactions, ranging from sympathy to disgust. Occasional breaks in the avalanche of paperwork, an air raid when the lights must be turned out, and package drop-offs, give players an opportunity to chat about the circumstances and values of life. As a result, alliances, friendships and even romantic relationships might occur despite the darkness of the times.
Betsy Isaacson, the creator of Escape from Marseilles, makes sure to provide some personal information about each character to make them as multilayered as possible, rather than just bureaucratic robots. There is a glamorous American heiress, a patriotic bisexual chemist, a talkative art student and a ruthless anti-Fascist, to name a few. But with the outlines provided, at the end of the day it is up to the players to make the experience interesting for themselves and each other.
For me, the process of prioritizing whom to help to escape first became the main emotional event. How do you make a choice and how do you justify it? The weight of responsibility ensures that Escape from Marseilles gets a tight grip on your entire being. It is certainly an uneasy journey, but it also provides the participants with a safe space to reflect. As an embodied and interactive experience it potentially has an even deeper impact than a simple play.
(Escape From Marseilles played at the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airman’s Club, 283 Lexington Avenue, on November 10 and 16, 2018. It will return in March 2019. The running time is approximately 2 hours. Tickets are $62. For the dates of future runs and more information visit sinkingshipcreations.com.)
Escape from Marseilles is by Betsy Isaacson. Facilitated by Allegra Durante and Lindsay Wolgel. Produced by Sinking Ship Creations.