BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience

BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience

For the second summer in a row, Pseudonym Productions has given Central Florida something special; not to mention something surprising, something a little bit sexy, and something altogether sinister. Their new interactive, immersive theatre piece, which they refer to as a "real-life video game," blends mythology and science fiction into a story that has traces of dystopian corporate espionage with hints of Shakespearean History plays thrown in.

A fully-fledged version of 2015's "beta test" production, WHEN SHADOWS FALL is an improvement over last summer's THE REPUBLIC (which I enjoyed tremendously) in nearly every imaginable way; from design to costumes to story to performances, very little has not been upgraded, often significantly.

BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience
Chris Brown as Cain
Photo Credit: Pseudonym Productions

In WHEN SHADOWS FALL, audience members (also called players and citizens) are welcomed into an exclusive city, which has been hidden in Central Florida for 28 years, called Penumbra. This city was designed to allow citizens to live their best lives, free of the outside world's corrupting influences. However, as often happens in utopian societies, some are deemed not to be worthy, and in this case, are cast out into the prison-like Labyrinth.

When new citizens enter Penumbra, they are sorted, either by choice or by chance, into the different strata of this particular society, and paired with specific performers. Here is where providing a thorough discussion of the Penumbra experience becomes difficult, because there are so many moving parts, that it is impossible in one visit to fully grasp the totality of the intricate story.

This is a strength of WHEN SHADOWS FALL, but also a weakness. Due to its scope and scale, the events of Penumbra feel real; players in the Labyrinth, don't know what's happening in The Office, which houses Penumbra's elites, and vice-versa.

That reality raises the stakes when players are tasked with executing covert missions across "enemy lines," but it also provides substantial drawbacks in the fact that it limits a player's ability to see the full playing-field, and to understand how his or her decisions impact the larger game. While that fact allows for players to return multiple times and get a thoroughly unique experience on each viewing, it can make the performance's stories feel incomplete or unconnected.

Since WHEN SHADOWS FALL is described as a real-life video game, there is an expectation that players will need some level of skill or strategy to succeed. However, there is precious little of that, at least on the track that I was on. While Pseudonym has always warned that their experiences are not Escape Rooms, the opportunity to achieve, or conquer, something tangible (or in turn to fail) could help raise players' commitment to the story. Otherwise, it is easy to begin to feel like a voyeur being led through a foreign world in which you have no input or control.

BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience
Cassandra Heinrich
Photo Credit: Pseudonym Productions

By a stroke of luck, on the official Opening Night, the player that I had been pre-paired with did not show up, so I inherited a practically one-on-one experience with Odessa "The Medusa," played by the captivatingly charismatic Cassandra Heinrich.

A former "Gold" citizen discarded after being subject to a failed experiment, Odessa led me through the subterranean fever dream that is The Labyrinth, subtly pulling me into her quest for revenge and love. Heinrich told Odessa's story with such honesty that it would have been impossible not to fall completely under her spell.

Pseudonym tells all players before they enter Penumbra that they can choose to participate in the story as much as they want, but that they will likely get more the more that they give. Having spent nearly two hours with Heinrich, often conspiring alone, I can't imagine anyone, no matter their level of reservations, not feeling intimately engaged in her story.

This aspect of the experience is crucial, and a major step forward from THE REPUBLIC. While last summer's performers were more than capable, and often exceptionally entertaining, this year's version puts the actors subtly, but surely, more in control over their players' experiences. So, to make sure that players get the most out of WHEN SHADOWS FALL's emotion and intrigue, the performers must be expertly adept at storytelling, improv, and creating authentic personal connections, which is tough to do while living someone else's life.

BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience
Rachel Comeau
Photo Credit: Pseudonym Productions

I also was able to interact closely with Silas, played deliciously by Lauren Ashleigh Morrison, and Daedalus, played by Joe Hall, who, other than being a little too quiet at times, was expertly ominous. And, while my path only crossed hers on a handful of occasions, one of Orlando's best actresses, Rachel Comeau, plays Thea.

Despite all of the talented performers, the story and execution of WHEN SHADOWS FALL was slightly safer than the world of Penumbra would lead one to believe; with dark lairs and volatile laboratories tucked in and around every corner, there feels like there were unexplored opportunities to push the storytelling to more emotional and dramatic extremes. Death, revenge, and sex are all major parts of the story, but more often than not, it felt like players were told about these things, rather than shown; much like classic Greek plays where audiences only learn of major occurrences through messengers.

There was one scene that I witnessed, while hiding behind a curtain, which pushed those boundaries, and while it was difficult to watch on many levels, it made me feel more connected to Odessa because of the heightened danger.

That being typed, every aspect of WHEN SHADOWS FALL shows a concerted effort by creator Sarah Elger and her collaborators to enhance, expand, and improve the players' experience from the previous incarnation. The higher level of professionalism is evident from the moment you walk in the door and shows at every turn.

BWW Review: WHEN SHADOWS FALL Blends Personal, Mythological in Uniquely Thrilling Experience
Penumbra Town Square
Photo Credit: Matt Tamanini | BroadwayWorld

This year, Pseudonym is offering a VIP experience which allows players extra time with the performers before the game starts. While press only saw part of that experience, it made a world of difference being able to enter Penumbra proper already understanding a substantial amount of backstory.

After announcing an extension the week before their official opening, yesterday, BroadwayWorld Orlando exclusively announced that Pseudonym Productions would be temporarily scaling back the performance schedule of WHEN SHADOWS FALL to add new experiences to supplement and enhance the world of Penumbra.

While I am disappointed, primarily for the actors, that performances have been canceled, I am excited about what future developments Elger has in the works, because Penumbra is very much like a drug; it can be thrilling, it can be disorienting, but one thing it definitely is is addictive.

Did you travel to the hidden city of Penumbra? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Banner Image: Cassandra Heinrich and Player | Photo Credit: Pseudonym Productions

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From This Author Matt Tamanini

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