Deep Into Darkness, a new immersive play covering the basement, main, and second floors of The Cultch, has ambition. This first production from co-directors Laura Carly Miller and Sydney Doberstein aims to bring the level of sophisticated claustrophobia seen in New York’s Sleep No More to Vancouver. That show, a Macbeth-skeleton danced, haunted, and beckoned through an entire converted hotel building, has been running non-stop since its 2011 debut.
Like the Shakespeare connection in the New York show, the subject here—of Edgar Allan Poe’s works and death—is a red herring. Don’t expect to pass through a hallway where one door leads to a decaying House of Usher, another the beating of a Tell-Tale Heart. The only dialogue of the piece, an intro from two front-of-house characters (which also covers the masks audience members must wear while they roam), seems to set up the experience as a mystery hunt, but that doesn’t cover it either. The goal here is a controlled mood, with occasional shocks, and there’s a lot that keeps that from happening in any consistent way.
The layout of what feels like a couple of dozen doors, features almost as many “No Entry” signs. The effect of period decor is broken any time you glance at one of the anachronistic library arrangements or writing papers. The scenes—encounters, only some involving Poe (Travis Fawcett)—rely heavily on Viewpoints-aided improvisation, a dance-like method that encourages touch and mirroring between performers, but does little to differentiate the large cast. Rather than develop or twist (and deprived of voice work or sustained storytelling), over the two-hour-plus running time it acquires the feeling of watching an exercise, not a fully-fledged work.
Of course, half the experience is learning how the whole thing works. This isn’t a true first (Nicolas Billon’s Greenland was staged in Granville Island’s boatyard five years ago, and there may be earlier examples), but you can still feel the labour of putting this on, the legwork, the logistical timing, and the money behind it all; everything about this is meant to be exhaustive. What’s lost is a sense of cohesion—why these things are put together here, now, in this way. Sleep No More ended up fitting into the New York theatre-attraction scene partly because of its site-specific brilliance; to have any hopes of similar success, Deep Into Darkness needs to connect with the Vancouver it wants to be a part of. A handful of references to Gothic Romantic poetry under blacklight isn’t it.
Deep Into Darkness plays at The Cultch until August 25, 2019, with showings nightly from 8:00pm-10:00pm. Doors open at 7:00pm for pre-show entertainment.
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