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Two of my first loves as a kid were gaming and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As I grew older and curiouser and curiouser, I discovered a love for theater, too. Saving Wonderland merges all three into an interactive experience, and I leaped at the chance to check it out. But what I was left with was a splintered sense of wonder, contemplating the shortcomings that often pop up in immersive theater.
We’re all mad here
Saving Wonderland is an entry in this year’s Fringe Festival coming from Gamiotics Studios, a company that specializes in live immersive theater. The story is set after Alice returns home, and Wonderland finds itself in trouble again. The audience comes together to play the role of Alice, who has come back to Wonderland to help the White Rabbit and company restore peace.
If you know anything about Wonderland, you know what you’re getting into narratively here. The story isn’t looking to innovate or iterate on any new or relevant themes, so don’t expect much in the way of new ideas and perspectives. In fact, don’t expect much anywhere else, because the story isn’t the only place Saving Wonderland plays it maddeningly safe.
All hail . . . the queen?
Audience members interact with the story using their phones, mobile devices, or desktop browsers to solve riddles, play quick minigames, and make choices that impact where the narrative pivots when the story hits certain plot forks. What magical chess pieces will we move? To what places will we next venture? What character is telling the truth? The performance touts four possible endings with multiple alternative directions, and it’s up to the audience to choose what Alice does. This is a cool idea, but it’s a difficult one to make interesting, especially in Covid times.
For one, the gaming activities themselves are painfully simple. From rapid-fire taps on a virtual button to multiple-choice questions, the interactivity is uninspired. You don’t have to be a gamer to understand these mechanics and contribute to the play. If you’ve played a board or card game or watched any Zoom theater shows from last year, Saving Wonderland isn’t going to do anything you haven’t experienced. It doesn’t use familiar mechanics in a compelling way, either, and the initial magic dissipates quickly in this hourlong show.
Since the audience works together, your decisions are collective. Being at the whims of fellow audience members, you may not hit the story beats you want. I played into this, purposefully going against the other players to seek a little narrative chaos. That might’ve been the only fun part about the experience for me.
Resetting the game
It’s worth noting that the show is split between virtual performances and in-person performances. I imagine the in-person experience is different, but I’d bet viewers may find themselves leaving with similar sentiments. Despite what it lacks, the production value of the Zoom was good: inspired visuals gave the performance kinetic energy and the audio was crisp, but aesthetics are not enough to save Wonderland.
Great immersive storytelling like this exists. Whether it be on the larger scale with works like Erica, Her Story, and Netflix’s interactive shows, or something more viable like the locally produced Know Thyself. But Saving Wonderland offers an antiquated experience that lacks innovation while playing it painfully safe. It’s neither curious enough to satisfy lovers of games, theater, nor Alice, and it’s not compelling enough for children or adults like me who actively maintain their inner childhood and sense of whimsy.
What, When, Where
Saving Wonderland. By Gamiotics Studios. Directed by David Carpenter. Tickets are $15. Virtually through September 25, 2021, and in person September 28-October 2 at Philly Improv Theater at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Captioning is not available for the livestream. Proof of vaccination is required to attend the in-person show, and attendants are required to wear a mask for the duration of the performance.
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