By Ryan Hart
Produced by Sinking Ship Creations
Off Broadway, Immersive Interactive Experience
Runs through 2.24.18
Wildrence, 59 Canal Street
by Asya Gorovits on 1.15.19
Participants in The Mortality Machine. Photo by Zach Filkoff.
BOTTOM LINE: An immersive and interactive piece that prompts you to investigate a tragic incident in an illegal medical lab, and reflect on the afterlife.
Immersive and interactive theatre has become increasingly popular, with audience experiences ranging from following the actors and observing them interact with the environment through dance (Sleep No More, Then She Fell), looking for clues and solving puzzles (Paradiso, This Is Real), becoming characters themselves to confront personal drama (This Is When We Rest), or working on a mission together (Escape from Marseilles). With their newest show, Sinking Ship Creations (who did Escape from Marseilles) brings all of these elements together. The Mortality Machine ambitiously combines live-action role-playing (LARP) with site-specific dance and investigation/puzzle solving.
The premise goes like this. Five years ago, a fatal incident occurred in an illegal medical research facility, resulting in the deaths of Dr. Kevin Schumacher, the head of the laboratory, along with five young volunteers. The tragedy was quickly covered up, the basement lab on Canal Street sealed, and not even family members were allowed inside to pick up the personal belongings of the deceased.
Fast forward to 2019—through a class-action lawsuit, a group of up to 20 survivors get the right to enter the lab in search for answers and emotional closure. You guessed it: these are the parts for the audience. As we gather before the show, we are each given a badge with the name of our character. On the back is information about who we came for, the nature of our relationship, and which other friends and family members of this person are also present. Hats off to the successful design of the visitor’s badge, which allows you to address people and have your backstory handy at all times.
The characters are written with enough room to fill with your imagination if you wish to explore an inner life of another person. Early on, one participant confronted me with a confession regarding our mutual past, which affected my attitude towards them and contributed to the emotional distress of my character. The group investigation became a means of personal revenge for me for the first part of the show.
Author Ryan Hart is inventive when it comes to triggering emotional responses and seamlessly intertwining them into the process of the underground lab search. The paperwork that our lawyer (Isaac Conner) asks us to sign prompts us to think of our dead loved ones. The reporter (Rita McCann), who is covering the story but is not allowed into the lab, tries to catch people in the lobby to get an insider scoop. McCann’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen in interactive theatre. Radiating an equal measure of charm and annoyance, she cleverly directs our thoughts towards possible solutions and self-reflection.
The Mortality Machine promises something for everybody. Those who wish to collaboratively work on an investigation of laboratory operations are provided with plentiful material. Photographs, notes, documents, personal items, and even video content can be found around the lab, courtesy of designers Tommy Honton and Orli Native. And of course the centerpiece of it all, the queen of the props, is the Mortality Machine herself. Can it provide all answers?
Without revealing too much, I will only say that there is more to The Mortality Machine than first meets the eye. Though a choreographer (Lara Marcin) is credited, to say too much about the dance might give away too much. This part actually was the most troubling for me. Designed to provide emotional catharsis through physical movement, it was difficult to suddenly switch modes from being an active agent who makes choices, to becoming a passive observer.
The experience ended somewhat abruptly, leaving more questions than answers; the story still had a lot of loose ends. Going through the meticulously assembled paraphernalia in the lab provides aesthetic satisfaction, but is intellectually disappointing. The newly found information largely confirms what we already knew from the beginning. Sure, the personal emotional track of my character was somewhat amusing. But I find it difficult to truly indulge in feelings when puzzles are involved. All I could think about was solving the mystery.
With some bumps and imbalances, The Mortality Machine is still a notable experiment in the field of interactive theatre. The employment of multiple storytelling devices is a daring task; perhaps for somebody else, it will be a more rounded experience. And just as no two audience members’ journeys are the same, neither are the durations of any two shows—it can run anywhere between 90 minutes (on the night that I attended) to 2 hours 15 minutes (as announced in the press release). So wear comfortable shoes and don’t make post-show dinner reservations, as you have no idea where The Mortality Machine will take you.
(The Mortality Machine plays at Wildrence, 59 Canal Street, through February 24, 2018. The running time varies between 90 minutes and 2 hours 15 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7. Tickets are $125. To book tickets and for more information visit themortalitymachine.com.)
The Mortality Machine is by Ryan Hart. Produced by Sinking Ship Creations. Choreography by Lara Marcin. Design by Tommy Honton. Production Design by Orli Native. Fabrication by Alex Young. Technical Design by Sergey Kasich. Original Music by Terra Warman. Physical Computing by Weston Harper.
The cast is Daan Bootsma, Isaac Conner, Julia Jurgilewicz, Elizabeth Law, Rita McCann, Kelsey Rondeau, Jessy Smith, Jennifer Suter, and Rafael Svarin.