James Cowan, left, John Henningsen, Jess Rosilyn, Natalie Fryman and Chrissie Harms in "The Axe" from The Kansas CollectionEXPAND
James Cowan, left, John Henningsen, Jess Rosilyn, Natalie Fryman and Chrissie Harms in "The Axe" from The Kansas Collection
Photo courtesy of the Speakeasy Society

An Immersive Alternative Reality Game Imagines Los Angeles as a Dystopian Oz

Experimental immersive theater tends to be charged with an element of underground insurgency. For this ultimate form of audience-interactive and site-specific storytelling, performances shrouded in the secrecy of unpublished addresses and furtive street rendezvous have become as integral to the form’s capacity for surprise as have the elaborate environments that await audiences in the churches, barrooms or derelict industrial spaces repurposed for the occasion.

That logic of concealment becomes the premise of The Kansas Collection, the Speakeasy Society’s inventive, multi-episode foray into the immersive, alternative-reality game. Based on Frank L. Baum’s venerable Land of Oz franchise, writer (and show composer) Chris Porter and director Julianne Just have created an Orwellian allegory of paranoia and political resistance that the Speakeasies are staging in discrete locations across the city.

The introduction to Kansas is appropriately titled “The Key.” Audience members are directed to a nondescript home in Atwater and assemble around a driveway fire pit and makeshift bar (libations are a Speakeasy signature). Groups of two are directed to a line of backyard carnival tents, where the slavering Gatekeeper John Henningsen (who is also credited as the scenic, lighting and costume designer) sets the scene: The time and place is dustbowl Kansas and the future is bleak. “The era of magic is over,” he says cryptically. “The era of reason and might has arrived.”

Inside, a steampunk-outfitted Zan Headly proceeds to induct the new “recruits” into the militia of the Scarecrow King. It seems that after Dorothy effectively deposed the Wizard by exposing him as a charlatan and left Oz, the Scarecrow seized power. That has led to civil unrest and the emergence of something called the Patchwork Resistance. Both sides are now in a race to find Dorothy. But there are other factions in the equation who believe salvation lies in a prophesy about a liberator-princess named Ozma, and who some believe is Dorothy herself.

It is at this point that a spoiler alert is required: audience members are now split onto diverging narrative tracks, one to an encounter with Genevieve Gearhart as political officer Phoebe Daring and the other with Matthew Bamberg-Johnson as her counterpart Phil Daring. The Phil Daring track, which includes Bamberg-Johnson’s genuinely creepy indoctrination spiel about the “world of new possibilities” offered by the Scarecrow, results in surreptitious recruitment in the Patchwork.

Much of the fun in these early chapters is in the sense of parallax created through encounters with the familiar characters of the canonical 1939 MGM Technicolor Oz. In “The Key,” that comes with John McCormick’s Wizard, who is revealed as an embittered and volatile far cry from the saccharine MGM portrayal by Frank Morgan.

In the second chapter, “The Axe,” which is set in a decrepit, second-floor office space in Hollywood, those encounters take an even darker and more bloodcurdling turn. Now the scene is a secret resistance cell, and groups of four audience members — some by now double agents of both the Patchwork and the Scarecrow militia — are drilled and interrogated by Christie Harms before being ushered into an Abu Ghraib-like torture session between Glinda (Natalie Fryman) and her prisoner, Nick Chopper (James Cowan), aka the Tin Man.

Kansas is what might be called aggressively interactive; it requires audiences to rigorously inhabit their assigned roles. That can result in some painfully self-conscious “acting” by audience members as well as unintended comedy. At the performance under review, one audience member tasked as a Patchwork infiltrator by Bamberg-Johnson (via an emailed Vimeo video) freely volunteered his secret identity to Harms, even though Cowan’s grisly screams from the next room suggested doing so might not be the best idea. It wasn’t fatal, but it did foreground the fragility of Porter’s poetically tinged fantasy.

Though it isn’t mandatory to have experienced prior chapters before entering the narrative (cheat sheets are available for newbies), the Speakeasies plan to continue rerunning catch-up episodes should ticket demand warrant it.

The Kansas Collection, Chapter 3 – “The Door,” at a secret location in East Los Angeles, through April 8. kansasthedoor.bpt.me.

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