Orlando has enjoyed growth in recent years in its theater operations, both mainstream and the popular Fringe festival. So perhaps this is the right city in which to debut something new and experimental. Sometimes called “immersive theater” as a shorthand, The Republic is actually a lot more complicated than that (disclosure: I was an invited member of the press on the last night before the full grand opening).
In many ways, it’s a multi-headed beast–a hydra, if you will–that bites off an awful lot in its grandiose grab to mix genres (horror, drama, mystery), theatrical categories (theater in the round, immersive theater, a touch of Brechtian theater in the finale, though it may have been unintentional) and even type of experience (escape room, live-action role play [LARP], typical Halloween horror “maze”). To the credit of the cast, crew, and designers, they mostly pull it off despite the staggering complexity implied by all that mixing.
It’s hard to sum up what The Republic is, or what it does, without engaging in at least mild spoilers. To keep it spoiler-free, any review would sound bland. But I’m going to try. Suffice to say it takes place in a warehouse, with purpose-built sets (this is how it may “feel” like a Halloween maze, but there aren’t any boo! startle moments). You and 29 others are part of the action; you’re split up in purposeful ways that are part of the story, you’re given tasks to perform (sometimes approximating what you find in these Escape Room experiences), and if you need help, the actors will jump in and “recover” the scene for you.
What makes it impressive to me is that this scenario of tasks and actor-interaction is playing out across the warehouse in groups of 2 or 3 for all thirty people. The 12 actors are busily keeping their groups occupied–in fact, they often cause the groups to intermingle and/or trade participants across groups–and yet they must all keep to a timeline that I’m guessing must by definition be loosey-goosey. The actors all wear only-slightly-obtrusive earpieces, and it’s clear they get directions on occasion for moving to “the next phase”, whatever that means for this particular actor and this particular group of participants. If that sounds insanely complex, that’s because it is.
There’s chaos, in fact, and I’m pretty convinced this is by design. You aren’t given enough information at the start of the show to know who all the characters are, let alone who YOU are in this world, and we are cautioned not to trust everyone. That’s the whodunit part of the mixture, I suppose, but it appeals to the intellectual in me. It’s not SUPPOSED to be clear…making things obvious would make it a passive experience, where things happen “around” you. Things happening “around” you could, I guess, be called immersive theater, but because you are PART of this particular show, things happen “to” you.
I don’t mean they touch you (although they do actually touch you–one guy was slow-dancing with the seductress character at one point, apparently at her direction); I mean that you can alter the story somewhat. The website promises that the participant choices could yield multiple endings, though of course with only one viewing I’m not positive exactly how they do that. I think it has to do with the choices made by the participants. Do we help ONE group of actors, or the other group?
The idea underlying it all can be seen in the full name of the experience and its website: http://therepublicgame.com/. The Republic is many things, but mostly it considers itself a game. Specifically, it’s like a human version of a role playing game (RPG)–the genre you may know from Dungeons and Dragons, or from Final Fantasy in video games. If you know the genre, you’re familiar with the way the plot can “branch” in multiple directions based on character choices. The truest definition of The Republic is actually a “live-action RPG”. There’s a main story here, but you can alter the activities on the fringe and maybe even the central storyline. It makes me wonder what would have happened if we *didn’t* save one of “our” characters from a surgeon’s operating table halfway through. Would the story have changed, or was that a “fixed” point in history in the vein of Doctor Who?
All this complexity meant that I spent most of my time in one corner of the warehouse, and as I raced through some parts toward the end, I marveled at how many sets and rooms I never even saw, or caught only fleeting glimpses of. I’m sure the idea is to build in so much variation that it would be worthwhile to visit again.
For me, I’d be interested in visiting again just to see how the experience changes now that I have the central mystery unlocked in my head, about who is who and what’s going to happen. I’m also interested to know if the various literary references pop out as much on the second visit. If you’re the sort of person who knows what creature lurks in the labyrinth in Greek mythology, you’re going to find much here to latch on to. Oddly, the Greek mythology is…well… “mixed” with another seemingly incongruous element: Plato’s Republic, the weighty philosophy publication from which this game/experience takes its name. You definitely don’t need to know a single thing about Plato to enjoy the experience, but if you do, you’ll recognize the underlying literary and theatrical choices driving the central story (OK, OK… one spoiler: “it’s about justice”). And if you happen to remember what “shadows on the wall” means in association with Plato, you’ll get a cool Easter egg during the course of the event. Again as an intellectual, I’m pleased by the references. But they are just icing on the cake.
Not everything went smoothly on our visit; the check-in process in particular struck me as something that could have been done en masse differently. And I’m not sure the choices made in the finale were optimal to make explicit what was going on. Perhaps that was done to drive after-event conversations? This does seem to be a thinking-person’s type of event.
I will say this: despite my confusion at the start, the intentional chaos, the realization that I only really interacted with about half the actors, and the occasional snarl of the many strings pulling at the event coordination, I was thoroughly entertained. My entrance fee this weekend was comped, but when I asked myself if I would have felt satisfied had I paid the $35 entrance fee, I realized my answer was a pretty quick “yes.” It was a solid two hours of engagement and entertainment, and there are plenty of entertainment options out there that cost that much on a per-hour basis. Most of those “other” things, however, lack the uniqueness of this one. The Republic fuses so many different elements and crosses so many boundaries of genre and category, it’s really its own thing. And that, perhaps more than anything, is reason enough to go see it.