Fruits, fresh breads, perfumes, and incense line the marketplace stalls. A cop patrols nearby; his eyes lingering on the horned stamp upon my wrist. He brandishes a baton and starts toward me – but before he reaches me, a kind woman pulls me aside. Her clothes are baggy, her apron grimy, her face friendly – she’s completely unassuming – except for the two large horns protruding from her temples, curling back just under her ears. You look like a nice lad. Her voice is warm, like the bread she peddles. There’s a lounge round the corner – a place where you don’t have to hide who you are. A sanctuary for our kind – all kinds; everyone’s treated the same. I got a friend in there – she’s called Arabelle. Got a beauty mark just below her right eye, makes it seem like she’s always got a tear falling. Go find her, mate, she can help you. With my mission accepted, I head round back… and I knock – at the door to Carnival Row.
Carnival Row is one of three experiential activations by Tool of North America showcasing Amazon Prime’s original content at San Diego Comic-Con – and it expertly blends intimate moments with powerful storytelling and gorgeous set design and costuming. This comes as no surprise, as it was directed by Ross Tipograph (who has produced with the Sleep No More team) and written by Tom Salamon. Playing to their strengths, the experience is highly interactive and provides its guests the freedom to explore everything in this sandbox-styled immersive playground. Clocking in at approximately fifteen minutes, audiences are given just enough time to engage in this world – and leave wanting to seek out more – namely, in the show itself.
When entering The Burgue, participants assume the role of either human or creature – and that initial choice determines how the world views them from there on out. Humans are treated with dignity, respect, and pleasantries; however, creatures are judged, berated, and harassed by the police whenever they can. However, the creatures are trusted more easily by the marketplace and lounge creatures – which often lead to exclusive one-on-one moments. Humans are still privy to these intimate experiences, but they may have to work a bit harder to prove they are a friend to all. It’s this agency in how you interact and how the characters respond to you that truly sets this experience apart from anything else at San Diego Comic-Con – and even anything in Los Angeles at the moment.
This is not just a commentary on Tipograph’s expert direction or Salamon’s strong writing, but reflects in the ability of each and every actor and actress to improv off the audience and their reactions. From the moment I step into the immigration line to enter The Burgue, a burly British Officer (Cory Lane) questions each of my responses, toying with me and ultimately sending me to the end of the line… twice. This proved to not only be memorable, but also helped reinforce the theme of inequality among the species. When I finally make it inside, I find comradery in the horns of Laura Preble and Taylor Henderson, who evoke warmth with Preble’s welcoming words and Henderson’s gorgeous vocal talents. Crystal Granville and Zoe Marinello-Kohn also take to the stage, showcasing their burlesque offerings, daring audiences to watch them instead of interacting with the debaucherous and diabolical deviants inside the lounge. But the most intimate moments of connection are found in the one-on-ones, tucked in the corners of Carnival Row, behind thin veils and away from prying eyes. Arabelle (Chelsea Cook), the faerie with the tear drop birthmark, speaks softly, each word heavy with the sadness of lost love; Conner (Hanz Enyeart) burns with intensity, warning us of The Dark Asher and the destruction left in its wake; and Bronwyn (Annie Buckley) transforms her sadness into purpose as she sends audiences on a mission that might end in her downfall.
It’s also essential to mention the breathtaking set design, costuming, and make-up. These aspects work in perfect harmony to immerse audiences in this whimsical and otherworldly experience. Tipograph brought Sleep No More costume designers, Juli and Alexandra Abene, to illuminate the characters of Carnival Row – and the costumes are absolutely gorgeous. Populate Creative created the grand design of the marketplace and lounge, and filled both with subtle details that make them feel lived in. And lastly, the make-up effects need to be seen to truly be appreciated (please watch the video!). MM Fabrications, Olga Tarnovetska, Rachel Gallenberger, Jessica Nicole, and many others helped give these characters the beautiful make-up, dirt and grime, or imposing horns that make the centaurs, pucks and fae all feel distinct and unique.
Carnival Row exceeds the expectations of a branded activation and has become one of the best immersive experiences I have had the pleasure of stepping foot into. With detailed sets and breathtaking make-up and costumes, The Burgue becomes more than just a Victorian marketplace, but instead, a refuge for anyone different or repressed. The themes of tolerance and belonging are universal enough to evoke emotion and shift our lens of the real world ever so slightly. And ultimately, Carnival Row succeeds in what it was designed to do: entice me with a world so full of magic and wonder that I have to check out the Amazon series, just to see one more glimpse of the characters inside.
Check out Carnival Row on Amazon Prime when it airs on August 30th, and catch up on more of our Comic-Con 2019 coverage here. Follow our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.
Haunting is a resource for immersive theater and horror fans in Los Angeles and across the world, promoting art and community. Want to help us reach even more people, and get some cool perks and experiences? For as little as $1 a month, you can join our Patreon and help us keep bringing content to life.