Are you good with basic tools? What about rudimentary cryptography? Any fear of small spaces, or darkness? These questions might become crucial if you attend Paradiso: Chapter 1, a new venture in immersive theater from multimedia director Michael Counts. Paradiso — currently playing in an undisclosed location near midtown — attempts to be many things: a riff on Dante’s Divine Comedy, an “escape room” puzzle for spectators to solve, and a feat of technical design.
These elements, alas, don’t quite come together in practice, regardless of audience members’ proficiency at cracking codes or manipulating oddly shaped screwdrivers. (Full disclosure: I put myself through Paradiso twice, just to be sure.) For spectators, the experience begins with a series of foreboding text messages supplying vague backstory about a company called the Virgil Corporation, which is
apparently at the center of a nefarious worldwide conspiracy. Upon arrival, we’re led into the Corporation’s reception area — a laurel-wreathed portrait of Dante adorns the wall — where a “receptionist” issues hazy threats and lists ground rules, then abandons us to find our way out.
What follows is a series of room-size riddles varying wildly in their aesthetics, the narratives they imply, and the strategies they demand of spectators. We yank at doorknobs in the darkness, scamper down a shiny metal air duct, and riffle through books in a noirish library. There are ticking bombs and holographic
helicopters. Occasionally, there are
performers, handcuffed in closets or
lying “dead” on the floor.
If you’re already an “escape room”
enthusiast, such flourishes might add a welcome flair to an already enjoyable event. As a theatrical experience, though, Paradiso lacks any discernible logic. The story shards available in each room add up to little, and beyond murmured invocations of paradise, the connection to Dante remains tenuous. The puzzles themselves are so cryptic that it’s often unclear both how to solve them and whether we already have. (The actors have the unenviable task of shrieking clues at us when we’re too slow.)
Counts has a history as a pathbreaking maker of theatrical works. An earlier Dante project, his 2001 So Long Ago I Can’t Remember — A Divine Comedy, was a visually evocative environmental piece, full of surprises. Recently, he’s combined
a career in opera with more commercial projects like The Ride New York and
The Walking Dead Experience. Paradiso tries to straddle these disparate worlds, mainstream entertainment and theatrical spectacle — creating, so far, an escape room you’ll very much want to leave.
Paradiso: Chapter 1
Created by Michael Counts
(Location disclosed upon ticket purchase)