Harry Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time, but the circumstances around his death remain suspiciously murky. Did he truly die suddenly of appendicitis, or were there more malevolent forces afoot? Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini combines murder mystery, film noir, and comic book genres to create a genuinely fun immersive theater experience wherein audiences can explore the mysteries surrounding Houdini’s death.
In 1972, wealthy Parisian socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild threw an elaborately occult Illuminati Ball at her family’s chateau. Guests of honor included Salvador Dali and Audrey Hepburn, and the coveted invitations requested “black tie, long dresses, & Surrealist heads.” Today, nearly 50 years later, immersive maven Cynthia von Buhler reimagines the Illuminati Ball at her estate, and her guest list could include you. Known for her previous immersive productions Speakeasy Dollhouse and Midnight Frolic, von Buhler is at it again with her most exclusive experience yet.
Like the original Rothschild event, von Buhler takes care to construct an atmosphere of selectivity and secrecy beginning at the participant’s initial point of entry. Potential guests must apply for attendance and, once chosen, are delivered precise instructions on what to wear and where to meet. Von Buhler then shuttles participants to her estate via a limousine fitted with blackout curtains. For even the most seasoned immersive theatergoers, the secretive applications, invitations, and strict instructions are enough to drum up some excitement and anticipation about the evening to come.
While the individual talents of the interspersed performances provide ample diversions, certain aspects of The Illuminati Ball disrupt its immersive flow. A bit of shuffling amongst organizers while boarding and riding the limousine partially dispels the illusion that participants are actually being considered for candidacy in the Illuminati. While it is no small feat to conceal the complicated logistics involved in such an elaborate immersive experience, the success of the production relies on this very concealment. Furthermore, Illuminati Ball seems only partially committed to its narrative. Some performers, such as the honey-voiced Eden Atencio as Kamadhenu and von Buhler herself as the heiress of the estate, seem more committed to interacting candidly with audience members. Other characters seem more concerned with advancing the plot, which crescendos confusingly in the middle of dessert. Transitions between dinner, group scenes, and individual interactions feel a bit like herding cats.
Casting the production’s somewhat disjointed storyline aside, Illuminati Ball provides something else far more special in its discarding of the fourth wall. The ability to eat with and interact with the actors and the fellow attendees is the production’s greatest joy.
The conviviality is amplified by the evening’s spread of small plates and cocktails, the quality of which far surpasses any usual dinner theater fare. The dinner, lovingly prepared and artfully plated by chef Erin Orr, consists of delightful colors and textures. The real sorcerer behind this production is mixologist Bootleg Greg, whose (virtually unlimited) flavorful concoctions fuel the evening’s revelry. For better or for worse, the drama of Illuminati’s muddled storyline is eclipsed by the evening’s more sensual pleasures of food, drink, socialization, music, and dance. In any case, the most pleasant surprise of The Illuminati Ball is its unique ability to facilitate connections among audience members, actors, and performers as they carouse in the moonlight.
The Illuminati Ball: An Immersive Excursion by Cynthia von Buhler runs bi-monthly on Saturday evenings through Aug. 20 (specific dates here) at 6 p.m. at a secret location one hour outside of Manhattan. Apply for attendance here.
Occluded by a flashy, tourist-ridden diner on 42nd Street, the decaying splendor of the old Liberty Theater provides the perfect bootleg venue for Midnight Frolic, the third interactive show in the Speakeasy Dollhouse series by author, artist and playwright Cynthia von Buhler. The sparkling acrobatic, musical, and dance numbers stand out in this production as palimpsests of the indulgent variety shows of Florenz Ziegfeld's heyday in New York City; however, though from the beginning Midnight Frolic promises interactivity and immersion, it is far too busy being a vaudeville show to enfold audience participants into its world.
Located in one of the most congested areas of the Times Square hubbub—adjacent to Madame Tussaud's—the Liberty Theater space is truly a diamond in the rough. To escape the neon chaos of tourism by emerging into an old, luxurious theater space is a genuinely charming experience. Even jaded New Yorkers may experience a thrill when receiving their "passport" from one of the cast members and passing through a velvet curtain into the secret warmth of a New York speakeasy, romantically lit by Nick Jones. Once inside, participants are invited to explore the space: downstairs is "New York" and upstairs is "Paris." In either city, trips to the bar are highly encouraged. Ticket holders who (pay to) arrive early are taken on a special backstage tour, where one can converse with the vivacious Olive Thompson (Syrie Moscowitz) in her dressing room. While this interaction with Olive and her entourage is awkward and under-rehearsed, it affords an up close view of the production's splendid costumes, exquisitely designed by Carmela Lane down to the very last sequin.
After ample time to explore the space and visit the bar, the Follies show-within-the-show begins. These song and dance numbers, while not exactly virtuosic, gleam with easy, old-time charm. Taking a page from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby, several of the numbers give contemporary pop songs a speakeasy spin. Standout performers in these Follies are Francine the Lucid Dream as Helen Gallagher, Erica Vlahinos as Fanny Brice, Ivory Fox as Mary Eaton.
The stage for the Follies is gorgeous, relying heavily on the existing theatrical architecture, but the crowning jewel of this production's set design is the hotel room in Paris (in which Olive dies her horrible death). Tucked up and away in the annals of the theatre, von Buhler has encased this scene within three glass walls. The glass room's voyeuristic feel doubles when an audience member realizes that, even as a watcher, she is also being watched by other viewers across the room and on the other side of the glass. The feeling is eerie and titillating, owing its conception to Sleep No More.
Where Sleep No More succeeds and Midnight Frolic falls short, however, is in its contract with the audience. One of the most essential elements to the success of an immersive, interactive show is that the rules for audience participation are very clearly laid out. This production takes a risk by leaving it up to the audience member to decide to what degree he wants to engage with the show, but this risks creating anxiety and uncertainty as to whether one is "doing it right." While it seemed appropriate to roam around and interact with the cast during the numerous and lengthy intermissions, it was not clear what to do or say. Due to poorly designed sound and chaotic staging, the plot line that runs beneath the Follies performances was hardly discernible, and characters' motivations seemed unclear. Though you are assigned a character with the passport you receive upon entry, it was not exactly clear how to use it. In one-on-one interactions, some cast members seemed more comfortable going off script, and only some had done their historical homework.
The key to enjoying Midnight Frolic is manage any expectations. Do expect vaudevillian brilliance; do not expect skillfully designed and thoughtfully executed audience immersion and interactivity. And a word to the wise: while some ticket levels entitle you to a reserved seat, not every seat in the house is a good one. Patrons who opt to have dinner before the show will probably be satisfied with the elevated view from their table, but for any audience member with a reserved seat on the floor: do not sit in the back booths. Choose a seat right up next to the stage; otherwise, your sight lines will be largely compromised by standing room audience members. Those who do not mind standing for the three-hour show will find they have the best, front and center, view in the house.
Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic runs through May 9 at the Liberty Theater. Enter the Liberty Theater through the Liberty Diner (234 West 42nd Street). Tickets must be purchased in advance and are priced at $75 (8 p.m. entry), $150 (7:30 p.m. entry, an absinthe cocktail, reserved seats, and a tour of Olive Thomas' dressing room,) and $1000 (7:30 p.m. entry, bottle of champagne, private box seats, a tour of Olive Thomas' dressing room, and a personal greeting from Mr. Ziegfeld himself). Tickets are available by phone at 1-866-811-4111 or online at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/943609.