I’m in the middle of the Pop N’ Bop soda fountain where Scûx, the leader of the Nebulas – a leather jacked-clad gang of no-goodnicks – has just had an epiphany. He realizes that, in the midst of pushing around his underlings, playing pranks on and making fun of others, he’s been something of a bully. Having been recently and publicly called out on his bad behavior by a former Nebula and beginning to feel victimized himself, he has decided to make amends, starting with the nervous-looking soda shop employee huddled in the corner wiping down tables. Scûx sincerely apologizes. Pezmond, the nerdy soda fountain kid, forgives him. I encourage the two to shake hands, which they do. It feels good to have a positive influence in the events of this storyline. And that’s just one robust and fully realized narrative among the many inside Sockhop on Saturn, a living, breathing, and out-of-this-world environment. Imagine, if you will, Jack Rabbit Slims from Pulp Fiction – “Like a wax museum with a pulse” – but in outer space!
Sockhop on Saturn: A 1950s Intergalactic Experience is an immersive event like no other. The event is directed by Joe May of Klubhouse Arts and housed in a 5,000-square-foot inflatable tent called The Wonder – in what used to be the Sears parking lot at the Brea Mall. Inside this 360-degree world, guests are fully immersed in the action, even playing their own part (should they choose to) in affecting the outcomes of the elaborate and intertwined storylines of the characters within. The thirty actors roaming around make up the Saturnian town of Hyperion Flats, in which there is an abundance of storylines to follow, all the way from start to finish. Your own level of participation is entirely up to you in this family-friendly immersive world. There is even a “Ghost Mode” option, in which you wear a sticker rendering you virtually invisible to the cast, allowing you to experience the world purely as an observer. The level of touch is light; guests are only allowed to shake hands with The Meteorettes when they are wearing their “protective” chrome-colored gloves.
As the name suggests, Sockhop on Saturn exists at the intersection of science fiction and the nostalgia of futuristic predictions made in the past. From the brightly colored storefronts to the vibrant-colored skin of the townspeople, there is a running mood of lightheartedness and fun. The costuming admirably replicates 1950s vintage style and mixes well with the addition of alien-like make-up. The music during the opening play is reminiscent of old tourist commercials, and the doo-wop singing in the talent show takes classic favorites from the likes of Buddy Holly and gives them a space-age twist. To put it in pop-culture terms: Sockhop on Saturn feels like a cross between Cry Baby, Grease, American Graffiti and Futurama, with a dash of the MST3k favorite Santa Clause Conquers the Martians thrown in for good measure.
Sockhop on Saturn aims to introduce participants to a world that, while somewhat similar to their own, is still light-years away from anything they’ve ever seen before. The sense of community and cooperation are what make the event fun for the whole family. It’s not all “good clean fun,” though. Keen observers will put together clues that suggest a more sinister, sci-fi storyline at work in the midst of this sleepy Saturn town. The pleasant nostalgia and wonderment are mixed with a sense of lurking dread throughout the 2-hour experience. This is readily apparent with any mention of the “Alby,” a monster of urban-legend proportions that has not been seen in over 100 years. In this way, there is almost a Twilight Zone-esque kind of allusion at work – think “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” The fun of this experience is that, while interactions with the Saturnites can remain relatively superficial, participants are given the agency to delve deeper into the fictional world, problem-solving or even creating further conflict, as they see fit.
For example, forlorn soda shop worker Pezmond sat down on a bench behind my fiance and I during a performance by the Hyperion Flats girl group, The Neptunettes. We felt compelled to ask him what was wrong. He was forthcoming in explaining that he’d just asked out a girl and been rejected and publicly humiliated. We encouraged him to look for love elsewhere and even suggested he try talking to one of the singers in the girl group. By the end of the evening, the pair was dancing together at the sockhop and going steady. It was a delight to see their individual paths cross and the development of their storyline come full circle.
All the elements of Sockhop on Saturn work together in a successful symbiosis. The acting is convincing and strong. Each individual has a clear path and storyline as they roam the town of Hyperion Flats, interacting with and involving the participants in their lives and livelihoods. I didn’t see an actor break character once. During the presentation by goofy scientists Dexy and Bexy, one of them seemed to flub a line, and an audience member laughed. Instead of being shaken, the actor played it off brilliantly, cracking wise at the audience member and continuing on with their silly spiel. Another entertaining means of interaction was when the innkeepers of the seedy Saturn Motel handed us a note to pass along to the mayor’s wife, starting the spread of gossip (especially around Mudy’s Beauty Parlor, giving further authenticity to the 1950s vibe). I saw many other participants similarly passing notes around, and it was a clever way to move the action along while giving guests an opportunity to peek into the private lives of the characters. It serves as a creative method of showing without telling, making the storytelling within the experience all that more immersive.
Sockhop on Saturn exists in an inflatable tent, which occasionally lets the “outside” world slip in. Understandably, it’s hard to get 100% immersed in an environment where you can still see the parking lot through the “exit portals” and in between the tarp coverings and fences. With that said, it didn’t take away from the experience too much. The production team does an excellent job of keeping Hyperion Flats so unique and engaging that I stopped noticing anything from the outside, and became fully engrossed in all of the intersecting stories. The set decoration is exquisite. Every last detail has been addressed – the tome-like etiquette book sitting on a couch in Mudy’s Beauty Parlor, the Saturnian produce in the grocery store, the cups of brightly colored Splarf soda at the Pop N’ Bop, the technicolor stage area for the town’s talent show. The entire world is a candy-coated masterpiece that gets visitors on their feet to explore the fictional world around them, and even ending the night by dancing with the cast. There are posters advertising space-age technology, such as the “Taze-o-Shave,” as well as reminding Saturnites to wear their protective gloves (presumably so that they may physically interact with visiting humans). Even the onboarding process – the flight from Earth to Hyperion Flats – is grounded in this world and sets an amusing tone that carries through the rest of the evening.
The lighting and sound design – especially during our flight to Saturn – is the perfect way to bring Earthlings out of their day-to-day mindsets, allowing us to begin our immersive experience right away. The early entry for VIPs includes a 20-minute play, which is a helpful method of introducing guests to the townspeople and the new environment. Walking into the world of Sockhop on Saturn, guests encounter a receiving line of the townspeople, all standing outside of their businesses and hangouts, ready to welcome the newcomers. While the tent itself is somewhat dark, the bright lights inside each store helps give an especially retro feel.
An ambitious undertaking, Sockhop on Saturn is a truly unique experience when it comes to immersive theater. What makes the event stand out to me the most is that it goes beyond the realm of observation and simple passive interaction on the part of the audience. The level of immersion that is offered to participants – should they choose to accept it – brings each character’s story to life; it is quite fulfilling to affect the outcome of the entire overarching narrative.
The opportunity that Sockhop on Saturn: A 1950s Intergalactic Experience gives its participants to step inside another world and become fully engrossed is a valuable means of entertainment. I, for one, came away from my trip to Hyperion Flats with a renewed sense of creativity and nostalgia. It was amusing to watch each story unfold and, although I couldn’t see every single story, it was fun to have little interactions with everyone in the town. The variety of characters allows visitors to choose whom they identify with and with whom they would want to interact – or not. Whether it’s patching up a long-standing feud between Ursa of the Pop N’ Bop and Mudy of Mudy’s Beauty, bringing the Nebulas back together and better than every, or helping a sad soda jerk find love, Sockhop on Saturn is truly a brilliant experience that will leave attendees wanting to come back for seconds.
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