Know Theatre takes audience on a tour of terror with immersive show at Mockbee
Leyla Shokoohe | WCPO contributor
12:32 PM, Oct 21, 2016
The Know Theatre wants to scare you for Halloween -- and it has enlisted a scrappy storytelling theater team from New York City to help.
The Know has teamed up with Hit the Lights Theater Co. to produce “The Other Rhine - A Lovecraftian Horror Story,” an immersive theater performance and brewery tour running Oct. 21-31 at the Mockbee. “The Other Rhine” is inspired not only by horror fiction author H.P. Lovecraft’s work but also the immersive theater hit “Sleep No More,” which takes an audience on a tour through five stories of a haunted hotel while retelling the famous “MacBeth” with no dialogue and lots of terror.
“That’s the gold standard for what immersive theater is,” said Casey Leach, co-founder of Hit the Lights! Theater Co. of New York City. “We started there and asked ourselves, ‘What do we really like from that, what do we want to take from that, what can’t we do because of the space itself?’ What I really like about this is it’s narrative-driven, so there’s a story that you’re going to follow, and there are characters that we hope you’ll be invested in, and that the audience is interacting in the world.”
“The Other Rhine” weaves a (mostly fictional) tale of terror around one of Cincinnati's oldest brewery buildings. The plot, focused on the revival of an old brewery, will feel familiar to Cincinnatians: The Bellevue Brewery, opened by George Klotter in the mid-1800s, has fallen into disuse and disrepair, and entrepreneur Scott Kaufman has returned to Cincinnati to restore the brewery to its former glory, backed by a group of financial supporters.
“The people on the tour gave the most to a Kickstarter campaign to bring the Bellevue Brewery back. So you show up for this brewery tour, and then everything goes awry,” said Mikayla Stanley, Leach’s Hit the Lights co-founder. “While on the brewery tour, you get taken off on individual experiences, and on these you can see anything.”
From flashback scenes of the Klotter family to being initiated into a cult, these individual experiences weave in through the “main track” (as Stanley and Leach refer to the brewery tour) and provide creepy, sometimes disturbing glances into the larger forces at play in the story.
Leach, Stanley and fellow Hit the Lights members Samantha Blaine, Kristopher Dean, Claron Hayden and Carli Rhoades returned to Cincinnati after their shadow puppet play “dungeon” snagged audience top pick at the 2015 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, produced by the Know Theatre. Know artistic director Andrew Hungerford had long wanted to create a Lovecraftian, immersive theater piece, said associate artistic director Tamara Winters, and following the success of “dungeon,” brought Hit the Lights on board to make that dream a reality.
“Dungeon,” a piece that made much of the interplay between darkness and light, utilized shadow puppetry and what Leach calls the credo of Hit the Lights: less talk, more rock.
“I’m very interested in applying rules to theater that happen [elsewhere],” said Leach, citing video games, rock bands, literature and Internet memes as sources of inspiration. “[We] abolish a lot of talk and just do storytelling through music, through light, through the characters’ bodies, that sort of thing.”
These elements return for “The Other Rhine” on a much larger scale. The performance takes place in the unfinished upstairs portions of the Mockbee and also spills over into the adjacent Reliance Metal building. Sturdy walking shoes are highly recommended: Winters said audience members are reminded that this is a walking tour and are required to sign a waiver before entering.
“You can’t get bored,” said Stanley. “You are active the entire time and that’s something that we took from ‘Sleep No More.’ You don’t stop moving. You get to experience things incredibly close in a way that you can’t when you’re sitting in a seat in a proscenium theater.”
Heightening the experience is live music, performed throughout the 45 minutes by Hit the Lights, and mandatory molded surgical masks, distributed at the beginning of the tour. The surgical masks serve as another reminder of the “less talk, more rock” sentiment: Audience members can’t speak to performers interacting with them, but they are spoken to and made complicit in the action. (Stanley recommended guests show up a bit early and staying late at the bar on the Mockbee’s first floor to get in on even more of that action.)
A sneak preview of “The Other Rhine” opened on the second floor of the Mockbee, lit only by flashlights held by the actors. (A handful of University of Cincinnati - College Conservatory of Music student actors join Hit the Lights.) Tour leader Scott Kaufman (played by Kristopher Dean) is gregarious but jumpy, an ominous foreshadowing of the horror to come.
The tour trails through portions of the Mockbee once open to the public and many portions of the Reliance Metal building that never were. All windows are blacked out, and the little bits of light that peep in around the edges enhance the rising anxiety and frantic energy of the tour. Actors took the audience into a pitch-black closet, a secret stairwell, a lofted, creaky library coated in dust, under a desk and into a private shadow puppet performance.
Hit the Lights Theater Co. and the Know Theatre have created a special performance experience filled with moments of intrigue, panic, curiosity and sheer terror. The absence of dialogue and light create a playground of possibility on the edge of sanity, much like H.P. Lovecraft explored in his works.