Below is a review of Sensa Stems: Agonist by The Paraside Institute. It does contain minor spoilers, but no major plot points, in the event that the experience is remounted.
Arriving at a familiar location, I am met by a gruff, suspicious man, who verifies my identity and leads me to the start of my search for a demon. Before leaving, the man instructs me to keep my eyes open and follow anything I see. Drawing back a curtain, I face a long, dark hallway, lit only by a few scattered candles.
As I walk down the hallway, I catch the barest flash of movement – something white, vanishing through a door on the left, then nothing but the darkness and the ambient drones and hisses in the space. I move a little more quickly, casting a quick glance over my shoulder as I turn to follow.
The new space is dark, a reddish light in the back obscured by large hanging shapes, swathed in black tarps. I make my way past it, into a room with a camera, a figure seated on a sheet-draped chair, and table filled with tools. That’s when he finds me…
Sensa Stems: Agonist is the first production from the Paraside Institute, one of three different experiences falling under the umbrella of California Occasions, a new project from the creator of Santu Deliria. The Paraside Institute is the only overtly horror themed Occasion, and “invites you to step beyond the fragile veil of perception, where logic and reason have long feared to tread.”
Running for two nights in a secret location in downtown LA, Agonist challenged you to seek out and apprehend a demonic entity… alone.
Agonist is a tense series of physical and verbal interactions that kept me anxiously awaiting the next. Although each interaction seems to lead to a familiar conclusion, the final scene ends the show in a surprising, tongue-in-cheek manner. The dramatic shift in tone from dark and menacing to gently lampooning your expectations provides some balance to the fear generated earlier, sending me back out into the world a little shaken, but laughing.
Excellent environmental sound design and minimalist sets created a highly tense sandbox-style environment, used to great effect by the casts’ intense physical performances. The two leads. Benjamin Berg and Elif Savas, were excellent, effectively able to intimidate or generate sympathy as the moment required, flawlessly leading you to the unexpected climax of the story. Berg’s subtle tonal shifts and effective manipulation of body language and personal space created a multi-faceted character in a compressed time. Savas was an inspired choice for her role, bringing a fierce, frenetic energy to her scenes, and bringing the experience to its heart-pounding conclusion.
From start to finish, Sensa Stems: Agonist was a thrill ride, deftly blending classic horror elements, full-contact physical elements, and the creators’ trademark irreverent humor into a complete story that left me wanting more. Although the show was about 20 minutes in length, the high energy and relentless pace made it fly by. This blend of horror and humor is a unique and welcome voice that sets these creators apart from “traditional” haunts or immersive productions, and gives attendees the adrenaline rush they’re looking for, with a sly nod at genre tropes that keep it from feeling derivative or heavy.