BWW Review: Despite Flaws, THE REPUBLIC Offers One of Orlando's Most Uniquely Entertaining Experiences
"There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless;" this ancient axiom is the crux of Orlando's newest, and most unique independent entertainment option, THE REPUBLIC, which opened last weekend after an award-winning beta run at this year's Orlando Fringe Festival.
THE REPUBLIC, from Pseudonym Productions, defies specific description by blurring the lines between the traditional forms of interactive entertainment. While it maintains aspects of conventional theatre, THE REPUBLIC also includes elements of experimental immersive theatre, gaming-inspired interactive experiences, and improv storytelling. THE REPUBLIC invites "players" into a complex 18,000 square-foot world that draws inspiration from Plato's "The Republic," Fritz Lang's classic silent film "Metropolis," Greek mythology, and video games. What results is a surprisingly compelling experience, even if the final product doesn't yet feel fully-formed.
Before entering the 90-minute game, players are assigned different roles in THE REPUBLIC's society; from The Office's elite new hires, to the average citizens in The Republic, to the lowest rung on The Labyrinth's ladder. Players are then repeatedly instructed to believe no one; a warning that amplifies the game's suspense and need for strategy, but also makes it difficult to fully lose yourself in a story that you never fully trust.
As in every severely caste system, in THE REPUBLIC, the select few in The Office strive to maintain their iron-clad grip on power, while those in The Republic, and more so in the underbelly of The Labyrinth, are looking to level the playing field. Standing over all of the action is a C.E.O., known only as Sir; at her right hand are Cassandra and Apollo. Amongst those working for The Office are The Engineer and The Surgeon, while stuck in The Labyrinth are The Oracle, Daedalus, Medusa, and The Minotaur. Each character has his or her own goals, and enlist players to achieve those ends.
Since players are divided into different groups from the onset, neither the game, nor the ensuing interactions, are the same for any two players; nor would they be the same upon repeated trips. THE REPUBLIC brags that the cast is prepared for multiple endings depending on which way the players choose to drive the action. Due to a lowly social assignment that brought me close to "death" multiple times in the game's first 15 minutes, I chose to play in a way that often kept me isolated from the rest of the players.
I preface this paragraph with that information, because I am not sure if what resulted was due to my specific choices, or a more systemic issue. Either way, it wasn't until late in the game that I discovered what the story was building towards. One of the ramifications of allowing so much of the action to hinge on players is that what results can often feel unfocused. In a world where you are told to trust no one, and that secrets are power, there is naturally a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. For me, it was nearly impossible to deduce what information was truly important, and what was not.
In my experience, I wandered through this world nearly uninhibited. Allowing me to follow my own hunches and to seek out the characters that I thought could benefit me most got me extremely excited about the game, however, I likely missed out on major storylines as a result. In my experience, which admittedly will be different than that of every other player that enters THE REPUBLIC, the plot lacked a cohesive narrative, and learning key points was too often left to chance. Rather than being built around a singular event or objective, and giving players some direction on where to steer their efforts, THE REPUBLIC felt a bit meandering while the pieces fell into place across the entire landscape. As the creators and actors become more familiar with how players will react in the game, hopefully the storytelling will tighten up.
That being typed, never once did I lose interest. From start to finish, I found THE REPUBLIC to be as engaging and exciting as anything I've experienced in a long-time. While there is little traditional acting in the game, the actors that I encountered embodied their characters convincingly, and were able to capably react to any nonsense that I threw at them. While the characters are fairly two-dimensional, they more than served their purpose in keeping the action moving, and the intense atmosphere intact. Some were intimidating, some were frustrating, and some were alluring, but they all worked well together to create an extremely appealing ensemble.
While I have struggled to properly categorize THE REPUBLIC, I am sure that it doesn't completely fall into the immersive category. "Immersive" infers that the participant becomes engulfed in a fully-realized alternate world; that is not the case here. Though The Republic's world is a 360° one, the basic, simplistic set pieces, and less than convincing props and costumes, require a level of imagination and suspension of disbelief more often found in a black box than in a project of this size and scope. While the props and costumes are just a few levels beneath what Central Floridians are used to at the theme parks, the sets seem scrounged together from items found at either Goodwill or Home Depot.
That fact notwithstanding, the whole of THE REPUBLIC is far better than the sum of its individual parts. My brother, who accompanied me to the press event, and I eagerly shared our experiences on the ride home and strategized about how we will play the game differently when we return later this summer. I am confident that the cast and creator Sarah A.S. Elger will continue to refine THE REPUBLIC's storytelling throughout their run, which concludes on July 25th.
Over the past decade, as technology has brought entertainment literally into the palms of people's hands, theatre has responded by bringing people into their entertainment. While murder-mystery dinner theatres and interactive shows, like TONY 'N' TINA'S WEDDING, are nothing new, this latest generation of interactive theatre has looked to remove the camp and kitsch and turn the genre into an art-form. Escape Rooms are becoming hit attractions across the country, and, with revolutionary hit shows like SLEEP NO MORE and THE DROWNED MAN, Punchdrunk has emerged as the artistic leader in the immersive field. Having experienced THE REPUBLIC, they seem to be ably blurring the lines between these two popular models, and I have little doubt that, with some fine-tuning and increased scenic budgets, Pseudonym Productions could be on its way to challenging, engaging, and entertaining audiences in the most direct ways possible for years to come.
When you venture into THE REPUBLIC, understand that you will likely be separated from some, or all, of the people with which you come, so don't be afraid to interact with the actors and players alike. Form alliances, take chances, and most importantly, move outside of your comfort zone. I found that the more I overcame my intense disdain for audience participation, the more I became entranced by the fractured story going on around me. THE REPUBLIC is only open to players 18 and older, and they do provide a safe-word in case the action becomes too much for you. So, if you don't like be touched by strangers, blind-folded, or yelled at, this might not be the experience for you. Otherwise, you might just have the one of the most uniquely entertaining nights of your life.
The Republic has five performances weekly through July 25, Thursdays at 8:00pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and 10:00pm. Tickets and more information are available now at TheRepublicGame.com.
Did you venture into the Labyrinth? Did THE REPUBLIC change the way you look at theatre in Orlando? Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.
Photo Credit: THE REPUBLIC