“What's in a name?” Juliet famously asked. For the no-nonsense folks at Ohio-based Room Escape Adventures, literally everything, it turns out. Trapped in a Room With a Zombie pretty much sums up anything one needs to know about the audience-immersive, interactive concept at the heart of REA's live, hour-long participatory adventure.
At a performance on Sunday, twelve game audience members – a group of slightly nervous, adolescent birthday partiers – gathered in a nondescript hallway at the edge of downtown's Arts District. Nicole DaCosta – who serves as site producer, umpire and, once the show begins, nonspeaking white-gloved “omnipotent” – sets the stage and lays out the ground rules.
Number one is that, yes, the players will be locked in a room with an actual zombie chained to an armoire and have exactly one hour to find and solve a series of riddles that eventually will produce a key that unlocks the door. As an added incentive, every five minutes the chain automatically lengthens, allowing the grunting and groaning and lurching and crawling zombie (at this performance played with conviction and gusto by a green-painted actor named Brock) ever nearer. Get touched by this infectious creature, and you are out for the duration.
If that sounds familiar, it may be because, at its heart, Trapped in a Room With a Zombie is an elaborated and more engaged version of the child's game of tag, and it operates on a similar level of make-believe and commitment. More sophisticated audience members will recognize creator Marty Lee Parker's “script” as an inspired spin on the 2007 Spanish thriller Fermat's Room, whose plot employs a similar locked puzzle room and lethal ticking-clock device. Parker's previous works include less theatrically ambitious experiences such as a riff on a mudman race, in which contestants had to run a course while being pelted with multicolored paint balloons.
The Los Angeles franchise of Trapped is merely one of eight simultaneous productions that Room Escape launched nationwide following a successful test rollout of the show last autumn. The company is similar to Real Escape Game, which started in Japan and has come to Seattle, San Francisco and L.A., and produced Escape From the Haunted Ship this past weekend at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
But Trapped's familiarity doesn't mean it's not effective. Between delighted shrieks at a near miss by Brock's deadly touch, Sunday's intrepid riddle solvers seemed intently concentrated and determined, if a bit disorganized (think: a room full of monkeys randomly trying to type out the works of Shakespeare, but in an hour).
For the birthday group, the contest of human ingenuity v. zombie proved a nail-biter: After finally finding the “golden key” and being mere seconds from fitting it into the lock and freedom, the timer announced that all had instantly become brain food for the undead.
Solving the riddles, it turns out, is no pushover, even for fully-fledged adventurers. During the post-show debriefing, DaCosta explained that thus far, since the L.A. run opened earlier this month, only three groups had successfully solved the game in 14 – now 15 – attempts, and some of those were avid adult puzzle enthusiasts. After having their photo taken for Trapped's hall of fame, the dozen non-survivors did not seem to go away disappointed.
As a theatrical experience, in terms of sophistication and ontological thrills, Trapped in a Room With a Zombie pales in comparison to a show like Urban Death, Zombie Joe's Underground's classic series of horror vignettes. But as an interactive game, Parker seems to have gotten it right.
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