You haven’t seen your friend Victoria in far too long, due to the time pressures of her burgeoning psychiatric practice–so when she invites you over to her new penthouse apartment for an intimate evening with a few friends over pizza and drinks, you eagerly accept. But at this gathering, the guests hide a secret, especially a girl named Justine…
“Justine” is the first act of Captivated: An Obsession in 3 Acts by They Played Productions. While it is the company’s first fully immersive production, writer/director Erik Blair has extensive directing experience. Together with producer Thea Rivera, he created “Nothing Bad: A Werewolf Rock Musical” at last year’s Hollywood Fringe. “Justine” continues this partnership and provides an interactive treat for fans of immersive theater and Live-Action Role Playing (LARP) alike.
Victoria’s party is as intimate as promised, set in an actual North Hollywood apartment with as many cast members as guests. Shortly after the audience arrives, Victoria’s other guests begin to appear, including her close friend Ely and his new girlfriend, the eponymous Justine. The casual party unfolds naturally; the cast’s impressive improvisational skills keep conversations flowing organically while still providing a steady, tantalizing drip of information. While the actors do a fantastic job at progressing the narrative, much of the agency is placed upon the audience–allowing them to direct conversations, ask questions, and even explore the apartment. It doesn’t take long at all to realize that all the guests have hidden layers, dark secrets, and a deep wrongness.
Leading up to the party, Victoria sends each guest a questionnaire and a safe word, but the safe word is definitely not needed, as the show involves only light, consent-based touching. While guests do converse with you, the audience always has full control of the direction of the conversation: guests are advised that they can steer any dialogue away from uncomfortable topics.
There are a number of different paths through the party. Audience members will have plenty of opportunities to get to know everyone and will be pulled aside for a one-on-one with most of the gathering’s guests. Each one of these people will provide information through a different lens; and while there is some overlap in the information provided, each conversation offers a different puzzle piece to the illumination of the larger picture. This provides a strong incentive for audience members to regroup afterwards to compare notes. They may find that some of the most important facts weren’t even gleaned in the conversations, but rather in the body language between guests and the choices made in a cleverly-staged party game.
It is these nuances that set “Justine” apart from other experiences. This is not an experience that relies on expansive sets, expensive technologies, or extravagant furnishings; instead, this is an experience that feels humble and human. Almost the entirety of the experience takes place in an apartment, which feels like the perfect backdrop of the event. It feels intimate, inviting, and lived in–because it is lived in. Some items are displayed without subtlety, but others take time and finesse to uncover. While this is not an escape room by any means, the details add a layer to the narrative and are worth seeking out. You may even find yourself judging a person by what they read…
With minimal set pieces and props, the show rests on the shoulders of it’s impressive cast. Each actor expertly answers questions with finesse, never quite revealing too much but offering enough to keep you asking for more. Stepy Kamei shines as Victoria, a woman quietly suffering behind a strong mask of order and control. Asia Ring stars as the titular Justine, offering a smile so bright that you know darkness isn’t far behind. Erik Blair expertly balances his friendly demeanor with the lies that are slowly slipping through his fingers. And while we don’t want to spoil the remaining cast, we will say that Josh Ritz provides a catalyst that left us excited for Act Two, and a surprise appearance by Glenn David felt so natural that it left us wondering if he was even a part of the performance or not.
“Justine” is a welcomed experience into the immersive realm. Often feeling more like a LARP than your typical immersive experience, it provides an agency and level of interactivity that most immersive entertainment are unable to provide. The intimate backdrop of an apartment fits the tone perfectly, allowing for audiences to focus their attention on the characters, who build a fantastical world through their words. And it is this dialogue that provides a surprising depth that will excite those looking for a good puzzle to solve. If you are looking for a night filled with hard liquor, cheesy pizza, and intriguing mystery, then “Justine” by They Played Productions is the perfect fit. There’s only one like it.