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Theatre in Review: Paradiso: Chapter One

Photo: Caleb Sharp

"I'm a friend of Mr. Chen." With this enigmatic statement, I was ushered into the murky world of Paradiso: Chapter One. Having arrived at a Midtown location -- I'm not allowed to say where -- on a recent Saturday afternoon, I and five others were ushered into the offices of something called The Virgil Corporation, where we were given a set of rules, answered a checklist of questions probing our attitudes, and, finally, were locked in. For the next 60 minutes, we tried to escape.

I can't tell you how many theatre productions I've wanted to escape before 60 minutes was up, but this was an altogether different, and rather more interesting, experience. Paradiso: Chapter One is an escape room, a new form of interactive entertainment -- well, new to me, anyway -- in which a group of people are thrown together and must work as a team to get sprung from a locked-room environment. It is the brainchild of Michael Counts, who is something of an immersive entertainment maven. A couple of years ago, for example, in something called Play/Date, he stocked a downtown bar with actors playing romantic couples, and let us run around, eavesdropping on them. More recently, he created a live experience around the television series The Walking Dead.

A woman in my party, who is apparently an aficionado of escape rooms, commented that Paradiso was one of the more challenging examples of the genre. I can't really say that my team was quick on the uptake, as it took us a laughably long time to get out of the first room, even though the clues designed to help us were staring us in the collective face. After that, we found ourselves in a darkened room, the walls covered with doorknobs, and, later, in a library loaded with clues and red herrings. Here, we encountered the first of a couple of cast members who were introduced into the action in order to convince us that we were victims of a larger conspiracy. Then there was the room with a dead body inside it....

Some might find such an enterprise to be hopelessly silly, but I went with it. Think of it as a life-size, 3-D interactive game board -- or, even better, as the opportunity to star in your own B movie. The clues are genuinely puzzling and it took a fair amount of group cooperation to get us from room to room. The overall environment is extremely persuasive. Counts is credited with the production design, but he gets several fine assists from the theatre lighting designer Ryan O'Gara, the video and special effects experts BeSide Digital; sound designer Caleb Sharp, and set dresser/props person/associate designer Katie Fleming.

Paradiso: Chapter One is probably best enjoyed by a group of friends on an evening out; with its one-hour running time, it can easily be accommodated before or after dinner, and drinks are available on site before the game begins. Claustrophobes, control freaks, and those who prefer to enjoy their entertainment from the safety of a theatre seat can look elsewhere. For those willing to get into the spirit of things, Paradiso: Chapter One is a clever diversion. If there's a chapter two, I'll be there. -- David Barbour

(27 July 2016)

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