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As I was heading into line for the 9pm Saturday performance of DARK PASSAGE, a Philly premiere from Pseudonym Productions, folks who had done the 8pm show were going the other way. “But what did it even mean?” one exclaimed. “I gotta find a drink.”
The lead-up to DARK PASSAGE’s Philly opening was complicated. According to staffers, on the day of the original October 4 debut in Callowhill, L&I descended on the venue and decreed that the building could not accommodate as many people as the producers had planned, and shut the attraction down. But the show rallied to open on October 11, with a strict new limit on the number of guests who can enter at one time (40 per hour-long time-slot, so get there early—the opening weekend sold out).
Materials from the producers repeatedly bill it as a “Halloween experience,” calling it “a portal into another dimension.” But while I got my wristband, a tireless staffer explained to each group of patrons that this is not a haunted house: instead of gore, jump scares, or a predetermined path, visitors enter a theatrical choose-your-own-adventure labyrinth full of performers who’ll interact with you (if you don’t want to be touched, you have to say so in the moment).
“I think there’s a safe word,” the staffer outside told me. “But I don’t remember what it is tonight. It might be ‘pineapple.’”
Orlando, New York, Philly
The experience features the Strange Spirits Lounge, a “pop-up speakeasy” thanks to a partnership with Philly’s Fergus Carey (of Fergie’s), and touts the work of artists associated with Terror Behind the Walls. University of Pennsylvania alum Sarah Elger, whose resume includes designing attractions for Disney and Universal Creative, dreamed up Pseudonym Productions in her Master of Architecture thesis. She teamed with Ricky Brigante to launch the company, which has created immersive entertainment experiences in New York City and Orlando.
Guests enter the realm of DARK PASSAGE through a gauzy tunnel pulsing with light, and then choose their paths through a maze of minutely designed corridors, rooms, and nooks. There’s a narrative here, but for all but the most engaged ticket-buyers, it’s difficult to divine. Actors draw you into philosophical dialogues about pain, life after death, fate, and the scenario forming the show’s liminal world. They repeatedly charge through doors and invite you to follow, clashing in increasingly overwrought scenes.
A small-print “content advisory” on a sandwich-board outside the venue notes that the show includes subjects like “death, dying, the supernatural, and some adult content.” One actor regaled me with an unheralded and graphic description of a rape and murder, which I don’t think is quite covered under “adult content.”
“It’s quite a challenge to resist the urge to create a strictly linear experience as so many have done before while still retaining a character-driven story that people can follow as they wish,” co-producer Brigante said in an email after the show.
The cast members are engaging and well-characterized, even if it’s tough to unravel the story they’re sharing. With four back-to-back hour-long performances on Saturday night, each varying according to a new audience, this show is certainly a workout for the artists.
But for me, the top charm of the experience is the production design. Some of my fellow visitors tried to hunt down the story of DARK PASSAGE, following the actors and questioning other attendees about clues. I got absorbed in the physical details, like an antique wooden box I opened to find a glass vial for holy water, various religious texts, intriguing wall-art collages, scary mannequins, and The Hypochondriack, an essay collection published in 1929 (librophiles beware: vintage books strew the space). You’re free to wander in and out of chambers and corners as you discover them.
The opportunity to enjoy the show in different ways is probably its greatest strength. And the L&I cap on visitors, while it threw a wrench into opening week, may have been a blessing in disguise. If I had entered as part of a bigger crowd, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed poking around the space as much as I did.
A haunting evening?
But especially after I heard patrons before and after the performance I attended, I think DARK PASSAGE has a branding problem, which was evident from the start as someone explained to ticket-buyers outside that this isn’t a haunted house.
As I left the show, one of the folks in front of me said, “I didn’t realize what this was.”
“I still don’t know what this is!” another answered.
Outside the building, a group of attendees huddled for several minutes exclaiming in confusion about what had just happened.
If some patrons found the show disappointing or befuddling, it might be because they wanted a haunted house—a reasonable thing to expect of an experience running throughout October and conspicuously billed as something for Halloween. “A haunting evening of mystery and exploration awaits those thirsty for one-of-a-kind chills,” the website says. And perhaps the truncated visit time to maximize the number of visitors, as per L&I, didn’t give the intended narrative time to coalesce.
I don’t blame any guests who left feeling disoriented. But fans of innovative, immersive theater with a taste for the spooky will have a good time here.
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What, When, Where
DARK PASSAGE. By Pseudonym Productions. Through November 2 at 1002 Buttonwood Drive, Philadelphia. psuedonymproductions.com.
Guests access the venue by climbing two flights of stairs, and walk throughout the space for the duration of the show. The performance features strobe lighting.
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