On my trip to Tension LLC’s Theatre Macabre, I met a man with one arm who leaned in close and told me “you should never be afraid to tell people what you want. Tell them exactly what you want.” The advice lingered with me even as the ninety minute show whizzed by in a fury—a tornado of booze, blood, and brutality. What do I want? I wondered as I wandered the halls, searching for lost treasure. I wondered as I sipped a too-strong drink with the Mistress of the House while she whispered thinly veiled threats behind her smile. I wondered as I held a frightened girl in my arms, and again later as we tried to run away, hand in hand in futility. What do I want? It’s simpler than I’d thought: I want to entrench myself inside the mysteries of Theatre Macabre until I know them all, impossible as that may seem. I want the curtains, once open, to never, ever close.
Theatre Macabre is the latest brainchild from director Darren Lynn Bousman, writer Clint Sears, and producer Gordon Bijelonic—the backbones of Tension, LLC—and the much-lauded creators of The Tension Experience and The Lust Experience, two interconnected multi-year alternate reality experiences that preyed on the emotions and thrived on the dedication of a loyal and widespread group of followers. Macabre’s team also sees the new addition of long time Experiences supporter and Verge Senior Editor Bryan Bishop, who’s jump from participant to writer and assistant director has been invaluable to both the company and the creative heart behind the experience.
With Theatre Macabre, the three have fashioned their first standalone immersive experience that exists outside the Tension narrative—an homage to the realistic horror productions of France’s Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, many of which would overwhelm more sensitive audience members in the early to-mid 1900’s. Theatre Macabre is the affectionate ghost of its predecessor, the desiccated corpse of a stage show continually inhabited by miscreants and malcontents. Within, audiences are offered a variety of ways to spend their time at the Theatre, and a variety of troubled souls to spend it with. This is a game of choices, desires, and adventures with seemingly endless possibilities; that it all exists under one roof and is executed with such an acidic artistry by a world-class cast speaks to the clarity of Tension LLC’s vision and their continued contribution to the immersive theatre community as a whole.
The sheer scale of Theatre Macabre itself is one of the most impressive aspects of the experience; the performance takes place on multiple floors and rooms, each brimming with detail that keen guests will see as bordering on Sleep No More levels of complexity. Papers, paraphernalia, clothes, and the various trappings of everyday activity in the 20th century make the space feel truly lived in; it’s easy to accept that performers both work and sleep on this property. Meanwhile, a handful of elegantly dressed “regulars” are similarly more than necessity.
Each of these performers and long-time attendees is portrayed by a rotating cast of stellar actors, many of whom guests will gleefully recognize from Tension and Lust events. Thanks to the combination of their skills, Bousman’s direction, and Sears’ boundless dialogue, the entire cast is prepared to react accordingly to nearly every potential response from paying guests. In casting Theatre Macabre, Bousman, Sears, and Bijelonic have again outdone themselves with the strength of their performers and each actor’s detailed understanding of his or her role.
As a participant, your individual “track” throughout the show will be wholly determined by the choices you make and the actions that result from them—some will find themselves on stage, engaging in morally ambiguous performances, while some will instead work quietly to tear the Theatre down from within. Regardless of their path, every attendee will progress through Theatre Macabre with that sinking feeling that they hold the power of life and death in their hands; few sensations are so jarring and energizing.
Audience agency in Theatre Macabre is expansive, nearly complete in this production—a trademark by now of Tension LLC productions—put into action here in brilliant fashion. What you choose dictates your own triumph or tragedy; few productions so deftly maintain narrative control while still granting such autonomy to their guests.
Theatre Macabre is terrifying, exhilarating art at its best; it takes audiences on a wild, personalized ride into the unknown. It’s not a haunted house; it’s not just a demonstration of the vast and stunning discomfort generated by Ascension, Tension LLC’s first foray into large-scale immersive productions—it reaches far beyond any expectations, and is still so much more than it seems. It’s the kind of multi-faceted narrative that begs repeating—in fact, many guests have already attended twice or even a third time—to peel off more layers and find what they want. As for me, knowing all the secrets of Theatre Macabre is a pipe dream—my story here is my own, and different from all others. But the curtain’s now open on Theatre Macabre, and the true potential of immersive theatre along with it, and the show must go on.
Featured photo: Julia Henning as Alexandria