Aaron Kopec’s tremendously popular Halloween shows at the Alchemist Theatre usually play to his strengths as a writer and designer; they’re great, geeky popcorn entertainment with no pretensions to high culture, but creepy special effects in abundance. His latest “Treehouse of Terror” episode, Closing Night, shows off Kopec’s almost supernatural powers of set decor, creating the massively fun haunted theater in which the paper-thin murder mystery takes place.
A brief opening scene in the lobby introduces us to a slightly down-and-out theater company, coincidentally called “The Alchemist Theatre.” In short order we witness a mass of seething ego, jealousy, frustrated ambition, and financial anxiety (not that small theaters know anything about that). We also meet a hot-dog “Psychic Consultant” and the woman who has hired him to contact the spirit of her ancestor, once an actress in the famously-haunted theater. A seance is announced—but first, the play. It would be no spoiler to report that before the end of the intro, death has—rather spectacularly—laid his clammy hands on the doughty company. And it’s our job to figure out who did it, why, and how. Our perky game masters, Erin Eggers & Sammich Dittloff, break scene to introduce us to the rules of the game, broadly hinting where to look for clues that will take us further into the mystery, and BAM! we’re set loose, utterly befuddled, to explore the premises, puzzle over cryptic visual and verbal messages and bits of decor to uncover the building’s secrets.
And what a lot of secrets it has! It would be criminal to reveal any details, but suffice to say that Team Alchemist have outdone themselves. As you make your way into the secret depths of the theater, sometimes literally in total darkness, things get creepier and creepier: light bulbs flicker to the beat of ominous thumps; hidden motion detectors trigger paranormal manifestations; the walls are scribbled with lunatic ravings. Obtuse instructions lead to hidden switches that cause messages to appear, doors to unlock, and the dead to speak. Kopec seems to have unleashed his twisted inner child to create the technical wizardry of this interactive environment. Like Discovery World meets the Haunted Mansion, there are plenty of things to turn, press, open, and even, in one case, kiss—all in a state of high trepidation, since we both want to figure out the story and are afraid of what might happen next. Scene fragments play out among the intimate spaces: sometimes you might be the only audience, or you might only be able to watch a scene by peering through a little peephole. It’s all diabolically clever.
And this is not a simple who-done-it, easily solvable by process of elimination—though there do seem to be a few red herrings thrown in. The seance introduces us to a pair of ghosts, former owners of the theater in whose lives its fate is entwined. The medium (played with Elvis-like, hip-swiveling swagger by Michael Keily), tells us that these ghosts are “like broken records” playing out scenes from the past over and over. Since the scenes play out of order, our task is to put them together, along with the environmental clues, into a coherent story which, with it’s strong occult overtones, rewards the genre-savvy. The plot might have been lifted from an old Hammer B movie, but the fragmented presentation makes it seem as fresh as a film by Christopher Nolan. Closing Night trusts out ability to handle uncertainty, and to piece a story together. It’s like one of those computer games where you roam through an empty house trying to reconstruct some grisly episode by picking things up at random. And if all else fails, there are a few helpful rovers willing to steer us away from fruitless investigations.
It’s terribly engaging, and the interactive format makes you the de facto hero of the show: feverishly rushing from clue to clue, discovering key facts, furiously working to make sense of it all, and then hurrying to fill out your contest sheet before the final revelation scene. This show keeps you on your feet, and part of the fun is, you never can get the whole picture, as some scenes play when you’re doing something else. But the scenes hold enough redundant information that you can connect the dots, more or less. Some of them seem over-long: a bit of judicious editing would give us more time to get around. The actors are basically playing game pieces, but to Kopec’s credit, unraveling the mystery does depend a good deal on understanding the characters’ motivations. In a second seance, you can ask the summoned spirits questions; here you can find clues even in, say, the jewelry they wear. It’s an entertainment truism to always leave the audience wanting more. Closing Night definitely does that: you want more time to run around, explore the environment, talk to the ghosts, and see if you missed anything.
Audience participation theater is widely reviled in our passive media culture; a lot of people would rather die than be embarrassed in public. But Closing Night puts nobody onstage; it invites us to play a game as well-designed as the nifty effects. And, by keeping our brains busy, it gives us the rare luxury of losing self-consciousness for a little while.As you make your way home after the show, you might feel still in the story, and the world feels a bit more haunted, more alive, and eerily responsive to our presence. When you stare into the void—it stares back! Spooky funhouse or fun spookhouse? You decide!
by Aaron Kopeck
Thursday through Saturday
October 10 - November 2, 7:30
The Alchemist Theatre
2569 S Kinnickinnic
Includes complimentary popcorn, light snacks, soft drinks and specialty "mocktails" (which can be "spiked" for $2)