At 627 5th Avenue in South Slope, Brooklyn, stands a generic, white-brick building, the kind you’d probably never notice if not for the message scrawled in black paint on its side: “Are you curious?” It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t be. This is the home of Curiosities, an immersive theater production that opened earlier this month and is in residence through November 26. The era, 1930s; the setting, the Menagerie, a jazz club out of which “the Professor” (played by Anthony Logan Cole) and his coterie of misfits operate an underground sideshow full of sins and secrets. The ambience is a little bit speakeasy, a little bit David Lynch. The plot is refracted across ten separate storylines, each anchored around a different character who might at any point beckon you into the hazy darkness backstage. Whether you choose to follow is up to you.
Curiosities was written and co-directed by Cole (previously seen in the role of Javert in productions of Les Misérables around the world) and choreographed and co-directed by Bryan Knowlton. The pair first met just four months ago, when Knowlton choreographed a regional production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in which Cole was performing as Eddie and Dr. Scott. “I was so taken with his ability to tell stories with movement and bodies, and I had such a good time in the rehearsal process working with him,” Cole says. “I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator.” Knowlton, an award-winning choreographer and veteran Broadway dancer, describes Curiosities, his first immersive production, as a “very complicated math problem.” Conquering the logistics of the entwined narratives alone took two weeks to figure out. “It is all timing and using tricks to cue one another,” he explains. “This helps us navigate through the show so actors can continue their track while keeping it a surprise to the guests.”
The night I attended, as a singer crooned onstage, a man led me into a rudimentary laboratory, produced a small vial seemingly from thin air, and raised the herbaceous tincture to my lips. I drank, probably against my better judgment, then sat with him silently in the stained bathtub on the far end of the room. Later, I watched a clown and a medium perform a rhythmic hand game with devilish, frightening intensity. “One night I was feeling quite inspired and asked my husband, who works on Wall Street and doesn’t work in the [theater] industry, to help me create some vocabulary,” Knowlton says. “I put on music and he and I, in our living room, created some really fantastic choreography that I use in the show. What I’m very pleased with is how we created a language in which these people move in front of guests throughout the evening.”
The cast of Curiosities did their first workshop on a boat, the Frying Pan, at Pier 66. Cole used to live around the corner from the “pretty much abandoned” space that now serves as the Menagerie’s home, a former Hasidic women’s clothing store turned rehearsal and storage facility for South Brooklyn Shakespeare. “A lot of immersive is moving to Brooklyn,” Cole says. “You can get bigger and better spaces for cheaper prices. And audiences traveling to the show is part of the experience. That’s why we don’t call it a theater. That’s why it’s called ‘the Menagerie.’ You’re traveling to a space that exists in our world.” Visitors are even encouraged to dress in period-appropriate clothing. “We really want to make you as immersed as you can or want to be. For some people, shedding their everyday clothes takes them deeper into the experience,” Cole says.
Curiosities is the latest of an ever-growing crop of immersive experiences in New York City, joining still-running staples like Sleep No More and Then She Fell. “People everywhere now are glued to their phones and computers,” Knowlton says. “We are constantly missing out on human interaction. Immersive theater is on the rise because people are forced to put their electronics away and interact with others. We force the audience to cut the daily distractions out of the equation and simply rely on their senses.” And Curiosities is indeed a very sensual production, in the most literal sense of the word. The scents that visitors encounter — vanilla in one room; Catholic Mass–ready incense in another, the walls lined with torn Bible pages — are intentionally crafted, as are the tastes. The potent, deep-blue “Professor’s Punch” served up at the bar and consumed by many characters has a medicinal burn (or maybe that was just Fireball). And you should expect to be touched, repeatedly. “We try to make as much physical contact with our audience as we can,” Cole says. “When we can hold your hand, we want to hold your hand. It helps us establish a connection with you. It makes it feel real.”
To that end, the parameters of Curiosities encourage intimacy, with a maximum of 50 guests per show — a ratio of 5 audience members to every cast member. “Sleep No More, the New York version, was designed for 220 people,” Cole says. “They now pump through 450 people a night. But then you go to a show like Then She Fell, which is 15 audience members, and you’re pretty much on your own for the entire experience, which is something that I really love.” The nature of immersive theater is that each guest determines his or her own path, but Cole has this advice to offer: Curiosities, appropriately enough, rewards curiosity. “Do not be afraid if someone offers you their hand,” he says. “Even though some of the experiences are more intense than others, everything is done with love and in a spirit of adventure. This isn’t a haunted house. We’re not here to scare you. We’re here to seduce you.”