When was the last time you unexpectedly laughed out loud at the theater? How about screamed with fright? Used your intellect? Bonded with the other patrons? Felt a sense of accomplishment and narrative closure? Now, have you ever experienced all these things at one performance?
Fair guess is that the answer is no. But all that’s about to change thanks to a superbly unique show, The Man From Beyond, meticulously conceived by the newly formed Strange Bird Immersive company.
Part séance, part escape-the-room challenge, The Man From Beyond brings an immersive theater experience to Houston that rivals the best of these types of shows in London, New York and Toronto. In case you are new to immersive theater — and no one would fault you since Houston has had precious little — it’s theater that breaks the fourth wall between performer and audience both physically and verbally, allowing the audience to be part of the story.
But while Punchdrunk’s blockbuster Sleep No More had us all chasing after the Macbeth gang in a mystical hotel and Sheridan College’s award-winning Brantwood: 1920-2020 brought audiences into a soon-to-be-closed high school for a final reunion, The Man From Beyond concerns famed escape artist Harry Houdini. More specifically, his death and the beloved wife he left behind.
For each performance, four to eight audience members attend a séance hosted by medium Madame Daphne, who calls upon the ghost of Houdini in order to discover who was responsible for his demise. It’s then up to us to solve the clues that will set Harry free, fill in the story blanks we crave and allow us to escape the room that somehow we’ve become locked in during the process.
The night I attended, I did so with four arts writer colleagues. No doubt there’s a joke to be had about a theater company locking critics in a room and watching them struggle. Thankfully we were joined by four laypersons, escape room challenge veterans all, and invaluable problem solvers during the evening.
But before the locking of the room or the need to solve clues begins, there is theater. An address is given, a code to get in communicated, and down along a hallway, up a staircase and into a receiving room we gather. This is Madame Daphne’s dimly lit reception, replete with hanging antique birdcages, taxidermy, ornate velvet couches, navy and gold-starred wallpaper, heavy Persian rugs, wooden carved cabinets, beveled smoky mirrors and various unusual trinkets. If you’ve ever visited the spectacular Surrealist room at the Menil, you’ll recognize the ambience. Peculiar, fascinating and a tad creepy, made all the more so by the accompanying tonally groaning or piano-tinkling music that's playing for effect.
Madame herself fits right in. Played by Strange Bird Immersive Co-Artistic Director Haley E.R. Cooper, our medium is all red and black diaphanous caftans, long strung beads, dark gothic lipstick and a pseudo English accent belying a hidden personality.
Each of us is given a hollow book with our name on it that instructs us to look around the room and find our spirit guide messages for the eve. Perhaps a tad more grounding is the test tube containing our Houdini Cocktail (a gin, cointreau, rum and absinthe concoction), also housed within the book. As we look around the room, drink up or visit with Madame one on one for a tarot reading, we are, by this time, completely in the mood.
The time has come, we are told, as our group is ushered out of the waiting room into a hallway lit only by the candelabrum Madame holds to guide us. There we are given the rules of the evening – the most satisfying being the no-cell-phone imperative. The reason for which is that spirits take offense to them. Break the rule, we’re told, and ectoplasm will come running out of our ears. Oh, if only other Houston theaters had the guts to instill this kind of smartphone fear in their patrons!
Beyond the hallway lies the shadowy, moody room we’ll spend the remainder of the show in, the séance location/locked escape room. And it’s as gloriously and eerily outfitted as the rest. With a large, round draped table in the center for us to sit at, holding hands to call upon the dead, the perimeter of the room is covered in Houdini memorabilia and contraptions. Everything from trunks, magic disappearing boxes, safes, desks with secret drawers, a film projector and fireplace mantel holding a photo of Houdini’s beloved wife, Bess.
Our séance commences, eliciting more than a few screams from our group, offset quickly by much-needed, cheeky laughs to distill the tension, and the next thing we know, we eight are locked in the room with one hour to solve Houdini’s mystery, which will set both him and us free.
It’s here that we really come to marvel at the details of our surroundings. Not simply decoration, this is a space that moves and reacts to us. Paintings bulge outward, things drop from the ceiling, lights flicker, films with clue assistance play when needed, and music guides us. All this as we puzzle out how to unlock, seek out and gather the clues and objects that will appease Houdini and make him appear. Math, problem solving, word games and just plain dumb luck guide us along the way. All of us working in tandem, together and dividing as needed against the clock. All of us working happily on total sensory and reasoning brain power.
Not impudent enough to ask how much the company spent on the set design and specific construction of the spaces, I can only imagine it was a small fortune. Huge kudos must be given to Co-Artistic and Technical Director J. Cameron Cooper, puzzle designer Nathan Walton and actor/sound designer Bradley Winkler (also playing Houdini) for their attention to detail and their glorious evocation of our narrative. Extra props go to whoever it was behind the scenes watching our group’s moves and curating the eerie but exciting interactive experience for us
To say much else about how the evening progresses would be to spoil the fun of it and trust me, you don’t want it spoiled. I can say that our group solved all the clues in 45 minutes and were treated to another giddily scream-inducing moment, followed by a touchingly bittersweet theatrical ending that made all our efforts seem worth it.
But every group is different. In operation since January, The Man From Beyond is a show that's responsive/improvisational to its participants. Not every pack completes the challenge, but no need to fret; there’s always a backup concluding narrative that ensures no one walks out with a lesser experience.
I’ve been waiting for a quality immersive show in Houston since I arrived in 2014. Not that bums-in-seats, traditional shows aren’t attractive to me, but who the hell wants to eat ice cream for dinner every night for three years? Sometimes we want cake or pie. But I can honestly say that I didn’t expect that when Houston finally got its first ongoing immersive production, it would be as good as this one.
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The Man From Beyond isn’t just a show that shuffles us around for the sake of it, or throws in the locked-room notion and cheaps out on the dramatic bits. By incorporating a Houdini escape artist/lovesick-husband narrative, Strange Bird Immersive has given us a natural hybrid incorporating the best of immersive theater with the fun of an escape room experience. It fits like a pair of trick handcuffs and we are bound up in the action from start to finish.
If nothing else, what a joy it is to be in an intimate room with people who love theater. People who will unthinkingly scream and grab whoever’s hand is next to them for support when spooked and who all are invested in working together to problem-solve and reap the resulting rewards of further dramatic storytelling.
I most likely will never see our four compatriots again, but forever they remain in my theatrical sweet spot. As does Strange Bird Immersive. I’m told that there will be another show in the future after this one wears out its welcome. I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves next. But meanwhile, my hope is that as many people flock to this show as possible. Let’s show the community that Houston is ready and eager for the option of a different kind of theatrical performance to add to its calendar.
The Man From Beyond continues indefinitely at The Silos at Sawyer Yards, 1502 Sawyer, No. 213. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. or by private appointment. For information, visit strangebirdimmersive.com. $30-$40.