Conventional theater has, well, conventions: audience here, actors there, everyone sits and looks in the same direction. When an element is off during a live performance – obstructed view, bad sound, a/c cranked up to “frostbite” – even the best production can suffer and your night out along with it. But theatre’s been this way since folks started grunting out stories to each other around a fire. However glitchy, however humdrum, the model persists because it mostly still works. Leave it to the mischievous minds over at freeFall Theatre to shrug their shoulders at a perfectly serviceable model and say, “Yeah, but how else could we do it?”
This isn’t to say that staging “The Rose and the Beast” as an “interactive narrative adventure” was just for kicks. After a successful run of drive-in performances staged in its parking lot, freeFall’s decision to put the summer show up indoors was wise. But as conceived by Artistic Director Eric Davis and based on Francesca Lia Block’s book of the same name, “Rose” eschews most theatrical conventions by eliminating one of the most steadfast: the separation of the audience from the stage.
Instead of passively watching, audience members download an app called Zappar and carry their headphones and mobile devices through the production one room at a time. Each room is a set for one of Block’s darkly contemporized fairytale adaptations, and each set has a handful of Zappar icons scattered about – on walls, on props, sometimes cleverly hidden under this or inside that. Scanning an icon makes something happen: an actor reads part of the story, a sound effect, a light shift or a video effect. Original music by Michael Raabe and Amanda Elend plays overhead throughout, setting the scene beautifully from room to room with a handful of story-specific songs cued by scanning one of the icons.
It’s easy to spend a room or two wondering if you’re “doing it right.” I did. There are icons I missed, I’m sure, and there were more than a few moments where I wanted to double-back and re-listen to a bit of narration or pay closer attention to some of the music. But at a certain point I realized that a lot of the excitement was allowing the sights and sounds to bat me around a room until the little green light told me to move on (you’ll understand that when you’re there).
Standouts here are the set designers: Tom Hansen, Rebekah Eugenia Lazaridis and Steven K. Mitchell. Each room was a piece of art, one that enveloped you in its story upon entry. The sets – from cheeky to slightly anxiety-inducing – are overloaded with props I wanted to play with (handling props is encouraged) and drawers I wanted to peek into (also recommended), but each was a design masterwork that I could have sat in for an hour or two.
This is a dizzying experience in all the best ways. The staff on hand does an incredible job keeping a steady flow of audience members moving through the space, and some of my first thoughts as I emerged from the theatre into the harsh light of day were about how many people it took to build and run such a production and make it come off (from the audience perspective) so flawlessly.
The “Rose and the Beast” runs through August 8 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave. Visit freefalltheatre.com for more.