Interactive theatre is some people’s idea of hell: Just the thought of making strained conversation with an enthusiastically in-character actor can makes their hair stand on end. Strawdog Theatre Company’s new immersive horror play, Masque Macabre, is unlikely to assuage such people’s fears, but spectators who enter with an open mind will find the show a devilish delight.
More free-range haunted house than traditional play, Masque Macabre builds its skeleton from the bones of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. With 14 different Poe-inspired storylines—most of which center on bloody revenge—playing out in 70 minutes, it’s like a storefront-size version of New York’s ever-popular Sleep No More.
The premise is simple enough. A douchey young shipping heir (played by Henry Greenberg) is throwing an exclusive bash, where an FBI investigation of him can be temporarily ignored; audience members are this party’s guests, donning masks and wandering through the Strawdog building, which itself masquerades as a ritzy art gallery. Within that framework are a host of simultaneous tales involving more than a dozen guests and staff members. Writers Aly Greaves Amidei, Cara Beth Heath and John Henry Roberts have created a Swiss clock of human depravity: The show is a logistical marvel, even if some of the technical aspects (mostly uncooperative videos) refused to play along on opening night.
The production’s three directors pull off the individual plots with relish, building up to the a grand guignol finale, and instances of sloppiness are far outpaced by bracing moments of in-your-face horror. The hardest part of Masque Macabre is figuring out how best to watch it. Events takes place across six rooms of Tom Burch’s sprawling, spooktacular set—each room is done up in a different color—as well as a number of shadowy alcoves. By the time you figure out where you are, many dastardly machinations are already unfolding.
There are two basic ways to approach a show like this. You can follow one storyline all the way through or bounce back and forth between several of them. I have tried both strategies, and can tell you that either way, you will experience a terrifying sense of FOMO. So here’s a recommendation: Go with a group of pals and split up, with each person tracing a different thread, then reunite to compare notes afterward. Think of it as your own little immersive sequel—a detective story starring you and your friends as you piece the whole gory puzzle together.
Strawdog Theatre Company. By Aly Greaves Amidei, Cara Beth Heath and John Henry Roberts. Directed by Anderson Lawfer, Janet Howe and Eli Newell. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.