When the Soap Factory proprietors hired Live Action Set’s Noah Bremer to direct their Haunted Basement, they acknowledged that the wildly popular annual attraction is fundamentally an immersive theatrical experience and should be treated as such. Bremer has brought a sense of narrative and interactivity to the scare show, and now, with Crime and Punishment, Bremer and his troupe swing around to approach the space from the other direction by adapting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel.
In theatrical productions that allow audience members the freedom to wander about a space and interact with various performers, there’s always a difficult tension between freedom and constraint: how do you allow audience members to feel a sense of independence while also ensuring that the story progresses according to plan? A lot of shows along these lines have an uninspiring choose-your-own-adventure structure: you can do this, or you can do that, but you can’t do anything else.
Live Action Set’s absorbing production must be counted as the most successful show in this vein I’ve ever seen. It’s elegantly constructed, and by compelling audience members to descend into the dark depths of a former industrial space, Bremer and his team introduce an element of genuine risk that’s both scary and exhilarating.
(The lucky few who experienced Billy Mullaney’s Romanian Revolution Project at 1419 in 2011 had a hint of how an element of danger—in that case, very possibly actual danger—can enliven a piece of interactive theater. Mullaney, appropriately, appears in Crime and Punishment as Arkady.)
In a canny and extraordinarily effective move, the show’s producers outfit audience members with ghoulish white masks; it’s a long-established principle of psychology that rendering a group faceless can evoke behaviors and emotions that are normally tamped down, and it’s impossible to describe how eerie it is to move through Crime and Punishment's bleak milieu among a group of faceless strangers. As the show progresses, couples openly cling to one another; when I came up, I was surprised to discover that among those in the basement with me had been a few good friends and the Walker Art Center's Philip Bither.
Crime and Punishment is a triumph not just of tone but of design: again and again, I found myself surprised at the depth and detail of the sets created by Erica Zaffarano in the subterranean space, some glimpsed only fleetingly. Not only is the space extraordinary—and extraordinarily creepy—to look at, it functions to facilitate the show’s action and interaction. When one performer pulled me aside, I was quite stunned to be ushered through a secret door into an unsettling but beautiful space, where the performer delivered an imprecation that felt urgent and genuine.
The show feels almost impossibly rich (there’s even an “olfactory design” team credited), and the interactions among performers and audience members only add to the richness. Moving through the basement is a densely layered experience; seemingly ambiguous but unambiguously effective sound and movement cues alternately gather and disperse groups of audience members.
The most memorable image, for me, was watching several performers disembowel an unfortunate ungulate while a smartly dressed young audience member, her face hidden behind that pale horror mask, cowered against a far wall. At another moment, a couple seemed confused, gripping each other’s arms, and I pointed them in the direction I thought they might have wanted to go; without intending to I felt I’d become, in a sense, a performer, adding to the confusion.
Later, I saw what seemed to be a performer and what seemed to be an audience member in a kind of swaying, almost drunken, embrace, alone in a room. What was going on there? I genuinely had no idea, and I mean that as a great compliment: this feels like a show where anything can happen, and that kind of electricity is at the heart of what makes live performance special.
Crime and Punishment is a Fringe show, but this production is at another level. Not only is it a remarkable piece of theater, my Friday night admission even included a live music performance and a unique cocktail bar while I waited to descend.
All the remaining performances are sold out; if you’re one of the ticket-holders, you’re lucky, but if not, you’ll likely have an opportunity to enjoy (if “enjoy” is the word) some or all of the experience at a future date. Bremer tells me this show is serving in part as a testing space for elements that might feature in this fall’s Haunted Basement—and, what’s more, the company hopes to restage Crime and Punishment itself after that. If that happens, don’t miss it.
- Jay Gabler