What to do with the fish tank? That was one of the questions my team grappled with at the interactive theatrical experience “Happy Hour” last weekend. The fish tank turned out to . . . well, no spoilers here. Suffice it to say that it figured in a comical race-against-the-clock adventure that also involved an ax, a teddy bear, a chained-down escape hatch, plants with esoteric properties and a pair of Ethiopian battle earrings.
These objects could be spotted lying around the mysterious rooms that our avatar — seen via video projection — had to navigate while trying to escape imprisonment. Watching the video, my teammates and I gave instructions to the avatar, aiming to get the hapless captive to freedom. Meanwhile, a separate team of theatergoers was issuing commands to a different avatar in a different set of projected puzzle-like rooms. The teams were racing against each other and also against a ticking clock: If the avatars weren’t out in 40 minutes, they would have to kiss freedom goodbye.
This clever computer-game-like entertainment was created by the German theater company Machina eX, which specializes in immersive performances that incorporate the principles of digital gaming. Spooky Action Theater and the Goethe-Institut Washington are presenting “Happy Hour” in Washington, where the piece is directed by Yves Regenass and Gillian Drake. (Machina eX previously mounted the production “15’000 Gray” in Washington as part of the 2014 Zeitgeist D.C. International Festival and Symposium.) “Happy Hour” is performed in English at Spooky Action’s home in the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW.
The title refers to the intimate, barlike environment where you sit during the show, which can incorporate no more than 20 audience members at a time. After accepting (if you so choose) beer, wine or a soft drink from an affable bartender (Robert Bowen Smith the first time I saw the show; Matthew Marcus the second), you take a seat at one of the two tables that serve as anchors for the competing teams. Once the adventure starts, an emcee-like character (Stephanie Tomiko the first time; Carolyn Kashner the second) hands out technologically enhanced cards that correspond to objects the avatars find in a series of locked rooms. By slotting the cards into niches in the tables, you tell the avatar (Kashner, Smith) what to do with the objects, some of which can be configured so as to create a means of egress.
Since a hit-or-miss approach works well in solving the puzzles, and since each audience member is free to be as active or passive as he or she likes, the experience is more amusing than stressful — all the more so since the actors playing the avatars deadpan to droll effect as the kooky commands rain down. Use fish tank with carpet! Use poisonous mushrooms with spider! Use cup of chicken blood! Use ax with battle earrings! “Good idea!” the avatar tends to respond in a sober yet admiring tone.
Kashner, Marcus, Smith and Tomiko — all of whom seem to have decent improvising skills — alternate in various roles. Also deserving of credit are props designers Becky Mezzanotte, Oliver Ann Hinson and Elizabeth Long, who created the enigmatic objects that fill the locked rooms.
I particularly enjoyed the room that evoked an aging mad scientist’s secret den. Lined up on a shelf in this space were jars that appeared to contain preserved human organs. One of the jars was (ominously, to my mind) labeled “Celia.” Coincidence? Given the audacity of the “Happy Hour” experiment, maybe not.
Happy Hour, by Machina eX; co-directed by Yves Regenass and Gillian Drake; conceived by Jan Philip Steimel and Lasse Marburg; lighting design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith; set, Kim Sammis; sound, Mathias Prinz; costumes, Lynn Sharp Spears. About 1 hour. Tickets: $20-$40. Through June 5 at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Call 202-248-0301 or visit spookyaction.org.