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Is This a Game, or Is She Really Out to Get Me?

Date: Aug 10, 2016

In the interactive Paradiso, reality and theatre seem the same


A woman in my group at Paradiso: Chapter 1 seemed perfectly nice, but I never trusted her. Even when the experience was over and we were down on the sidewalk, exchanging pleasantries before we parted company forever, I was still expecting her to admit she was part of the game. I was still listening for the odd phrase or meaningful look that would prove she was a spy.

So obviously, the show altered my sense of reality. Which is the point.

Created by Michael Counts, Paradiso is both an escape-the-room game and an immersive piece of theatre. And the immersion begins from the moment you buy a ticket. In fact, before you even know where the show takes place, you receive ominous messages about the Virgil Corporation, which apparently lost its government contract because it was conducting inhumane psychological experiments on people.

After that seed has been planted, you receive a text message telling you where the production actually occurs. (Slight spoiler: It's in an office building in Koreatown.) By the time you arrive, you're primed to mistrust what you see. Any object or person could be connected to Virgil Corp.

The dread only thickens once the event begins. Patrons are divided into groups of 10, and each group gets an hour to escape a series of rooms that are designed to look like weirder and weirder areas of Virgil Corp's offices. There are actors scattered throughout, playing a variety of characters who both offer clues on solving the puzzles and draw you into a story about the corporation's terrible deeds. (The plot is loosely inspired by The Divine Comedy.) Sometimes, the actors are so involved with your escape from a space that you can't move forward unless you talk to them.

So you can imagine my suspicion when the nice woman entered my group a few minutes after we had begun. She'd gone to wrong room, she said. She was running a little late. But now she was here to play.

Alarm bells! Sirens! Do not trust this villainess! Those were my first thoughts, and like I said, I couldn't quite shake them, even when my run through Paradiso was over.


When I mention this to him on the phone, Michael Counts seems pleased that the work has kept me guessing. Moments like this are part of his grand plan.

"What this is building toward in my mind is an idea where there's a narrative that extends well beyond just one space," he says. "It's something you can step into on an ongoing basis. What if you saw that person, and a day later you saw that person following you? That's where this is going in my mind. You can step into this world. It's like what people do in these massive online games like World of Warcraft, but it can be in reality."

Counts is certainly qualified to create this kind of experience. He's been making immersive theatre since the 1990s, including a recent piece set in a zombie-filled world inspired by The Walking Dead.

Even with all that experience, though, he's still experimenting with his technique. Among other things, he's using Paradiso to find the right balance between explaining the rules and letting people explore a theatrical environment for themselves. Given the 60 minute time limit for each group, it's important that they learn how to move through areas quickly, but at the same time, Counts doesn't want to deny patrons the satisfaction of solving things on their own.

Without giving too much away, major elements have changed since Paradiso began performances last month, and at least one change removes explicit instructions from a tricky puzzle. "Reality does not offer you lots of exposition," Counts says. "If you found yourself in the middle of a bank robbery, you wouldn't know, 'Oh, that's who this is, and his relationship to this guy is that. And they need money because of that.' You'd just be in the middle of a bank robbery. And part of what makes [Paradiso] work or not work is whether the narrative is believable in that way. "

Of course, no one will "believe" in the show completely. It's impossible to forget that it's all just a game. But as I learned firsthand with the very nice woman, when the show is working, it can still find ways to make reality feel less stable.


Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Caleb Sharp. Top photo: A scene from 'Paradiso: Chapter 1.'

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