The following is a full review for The Heart of Winter, the first immersive experience from new theatrical production company The Unmarked Door.
You enter the crowded hall full of warm, cheerful faces lighting up with recognition as you make your way to the check-in table for the reunion. Jane is in charge, as usual, handing out nametags. There’s Shannon next to her, blushing and wincing every time Jane cracks a joke about Sebastian. Didn’t you think Shannon and Sebastian made the perfect couple? Jane certainly still thinks so, she seems as determined as ever that tonight is the night. Typical Jane, the Type A, can-do personality, always putting her nose in other peoples’ business, am I right? I can’t believe everyone from Professor Gustafssen’s class showed up. Look, even Spring made it, looking as sour as ever. I wonder what she’s been up to?
You’d be forgiven for not remembering any of these names, faces, or the various romantic entanglements that seem to be tying them all together in knots. After all, despite every “former classmate” greeting you with a hug and a standard question of what you’ve been up to, this is not a ten-year class reunion. Welcome to Heart of Winter, the inaugural experience from new theatrical company The Unmarked Door, treating the immersive community to a hearty dose of holiday fun as we skate through the New Year. Sentimental, silly, and thoroughly engaging, Heart of Winter is sure to melt through whatever frost you’ve accumulated through the long, dark winter of 2017 and reacquaint you with your most frivolous, carefree self.
In a night that begins with a fierce and funny snowball fight between two gently warring factions of the participants and climaxes with them coming together and turning those same snowballs on the roaring shadow of a bear, the playful innocence that Heart of Winter imbues the proceedings with is both beguiling and refreshing. Who cares that the snowballs are carved from white foam? Never mind that the bear is a shadow puppet cast by a performer with no attempt to mask it. The snow on the ground may be cotton and the trees emanating the strong smell of pine may be potted, but the show never apologizes or tries to make more of the humble, hand-made quality of the world it creates. Heart of Winter’s low-tech aesthetic and winking irreverence are actually some of its greatest charms, signaling to the participants that they at last are being given a chance at something we adults rarely get to do: play.
A series of disarming games designed to break the ice (forgive the pun) that should be familiar to anyone who has attended the first day of a theatre or improv class kick off an evening that also includes songs, dancing, the most lightweight of love stories, and all the s’mores, cocoa, and warm apple cider someone indulging in the winter sporting life could ask for. Every activity is group-based, encouraging interactions of one kind or another with every other member of the audience, harkening back to those early camp days where a stranger could become a friend in a matter of seconds, knocking down the barriers of decorum and diving headfirst into the fun. Whether you’re tossing a ball back and forth, cheering your team on during a quiz with no real stakes, or simply making room next to you on the floor for someone to sit and listen to the story, camaraderie is the lifeblood of this Heart.
All the performers scattered throughout the group are winning in their respective roles, excelling in the kind of easy, inviting banter that is both compelling enough for a participant to just sit back and watch and nonthreatening enough to encourage that same participant to join in, ensuring that everyone feels like they’re part of the gang. These characters are real people with their own interior lives, and while the various plot threads make themselves known when absolutely necessary, the interactions mostly feel authentic in how quiet and missable they are, further cementing the feeling of attending an actual reunion party.
The interpersonal conflicts of Shannon, Sebastian, Spring, and the rest are their problems, not yours, and only those participants turned classmates eager enough to insinuate themselves into the gossip will be privy to the full story. Or, if you’re someone who was never big on the sort of drama that could manifest in a schoolyard setting, you could simply rise above it all and just enjoy the celebration. Whereas other immersive experiences keep their audience on a rigid storytelling track to ensure that every beat is delivered to each person in the same way, the Unmarked Door embraces the controlled chaos of a party that Heart of Winter evokes, allowing participants to lose themselves in the sandbox (or perhaps snow globe?) they’re invited to play in.
As the audience is warmly assimilated into the fictional graduating class, the cast and creative team of Heart of Winter do their charming, lighthearted best to simulate that very real feeling of returning home with the winter chill and wrapping yourself up in the musty warmth of the life you outgrew like that long-neglected winter coat in your closet, out of style but no less cozy and familiar. It is an identifiable sentiment to anyone who has ever braced themselves prior to their own homecoming, even in the age of Facebook, for the nervous uncertainty of a night that can hold the potential of old wounds reopened, old flames rekindled, and perhaps even old hopes that were collecting dust under a stack of yearbooks at last fulfilled. Heart of Winter’s greatest gift is providing a space for its audience to put these anxieties aside for a night and dig even deeper, tapping into their most innocent, child-like instincts and allowing them a night to run free in the company of a room full of others similarly young at heart. In the end, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
For a closer look at the creation of Heart of Winter, read our interview with the show’s composer and co-creator Rolfe Kent. For the latest on The Unmarked Door, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.