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The audience is forced to act -- in both senses of the word -- at The Mortality Machine
Days before ticket holders descend into a Lower East Side basement to experience The Mortality Machine, they've already been emailed homework. A mystery about five people who died in an illegal medical experiment, the show sends attendees articles about the tragedy, obituaries of the victims, a lawyer's letter explaining how the scene of the crime is being unsealed just for them and, most importantly, information on the characters they'll be playing.
Because in The Mortality Machine, the audience members are asked to act. Welcome to LARP theatre.
"Live-action role playing is slowly coming of age as an artistic medium in the United States," says Ryan Hart, one of the founders of Sinking Ship Creations, the company behind the show. "What we do is pretty different from other people in the immersive theatre scene," noting that in shows like Sleep No More or Then She Fell, audiences interact with performers, but don't play characters themselves. A thousand hours went into the design, the story, the fabrication and the installation of The Mortality Machine, making it the most ambitious of the seven productions the troupe has mounted since its 2017 launch.
Live-action role-playing games date back to the 1970s. Hart started playing them about 15 years ago, when a friend introduced him to a popular one called Vampire: The Masquerade. But LARP theatre is relatively new -- so new, in fact, that the difference between LARP games and LARP theatre is still in the process of being defined.
"There's no real consensus yet," Ryan says. "But to me, the theatricality is in the production values, and the focus on presenting something to a new and broader audience that can be experienced like any other theatre show." In contrast, LARP games take longer (sometimes days) and cater strictly to aficionados.
The Mortality Machine welcomes LARP beginners, though it may take them some time to catch on. At each performance, the 20-odd participants are given cards that include descriptions of the respective characters they've been assigned, and their relationships to the others. "Your name is Mars McKinsey," one says. "You lost your fiancée Omi Johnson." Mars knows three other characters who are also present, including Omi's aunt and a man named Riley. Meanwhile, the character description for Riley reveals that he slept with Omi -- a fact Mars is unaware of.
"A number of the characters have a secret like that," explains Jason Knox, another Sinking Ship co-founder, who believes these complicated intertwined backstories allow audiences to have "a more emotional experience."
The adventure begins in a room called the laboratory, which is jam-packed with potential clues: flasks and test tubes, a cabinet full of patient files, a computer with videos of the deceased, even an empty pizza box. Eventually, a discovery leads to a series of rooms, most memorably a dreamy white chamber where performers (as distinct from participants) are dancing ethereally, and silently.
What if the participants don't learn what they're supposed to, and just remain in that first room, standing around opening and closing that empty pizza box? "We have a plan," Hart says. "The performers are trained to react and assist."
The show surreptitiously moves everybody along in an arc that leads from one set piece to another, although what ultimately happens depends on decisions made along the way by the participants. "There are 13 possible endings," Hart says. "In one, everybody dies."
Although that is one of the least likely outcomes, Knox concedes that The Mortality Machine might not be for everyone. "There may be a level of discomfort," he says. "It's not a haunted house, we don't set out to scare you, but there are themes of death and medically assisted suicide and the loss of loved ones." Therefore, like many shows these days, The Mortality Machine comes with a trigger warning, especially since it's so up-close and personal. But Knox hopes its novelty and intimacy will attract the curious, even if they're not sure they can handle it. "Maybe they'll say: 'I'm uncomfortable but I’m doing this anyway, because I want to push my comfort zone.'"
To read about a student's experience at The Mortality Machine, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Participants in The Mortality Machine examine a clue. Photos by Zach Filkoff.
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