Above: Shelby Ryan Lee welcomes travelers to the outpost while Kale Hinthorn (center) and Elena Scaringe-Peene (left) watch dubiously.
Last Call Theatre’s post-apocalyptic Abandoned melds audience participation with solid storytelling to create an immersive play that works on all levels.
Many are the immersive plays that invite audiences to participate in the action. The novelty of being face-to-face with the actors within the setting can be powerful but also confusing. Is the audience supposed to take an active roll or simply follow along? How much agency do they have to determine events – if any? As the philosophers say, is their free will merely an illusion behind which lies a predetermined outcome?
Moreover, does interactivity undermine drama? Can an immersive experience ever be a fully realized play when many of the playwright’s traditional artistic choices – how to make the characters’ actions build to a rousing climax that leads to a satisfying resolution – are impacted by the X-Factor of audience participation?
In short, is there an inevitable tradeoff between good storytelling and immersive storytelling, in which the novelty of the latter is expected to compensate for the shortcoming of the former?
Thanks to Abandoned, the new interactive theatrical production from Last Call Theatre (Signals), the answer to the last question is definitely NO. Abandoned works as both an immersive experience and a gripping post-apocalyptic murder-mystery, in which the fate of an isolated outpost is in the hands of both the characters and the audience. Characterizations, performances, and plot will trigger your emotions as deeply as any traditional piece of stagecraft, while the clarity of the setup will put even neophyte participants at ease with the interactive element.
This interactivity does not substitute for story; it brings you closer to the story, so that you experience events as an active participant instead of a passive observer. By the end, you will feel like comrades with the characters. Hopefully, your choices will help them avoid disaster.
Abandoned Theatre Review: Prepping for New Babylon
Abandoned is set in a post-apocalyptic future when there are no heroes, and happy endings are not to be expected. The last remaining bastion of civilization is New Babylon, and the story has you join a ragtag group of travelers stopping at an isolated outpost on the way to the promise of a better life. When you purchase your ticket, you are required to fill out a form, selecting a background (.e.g., Nomad from the North) and a group of personality traits. The later can be tricky: the characteristics, in sets of three, can be contradictory, so you may not find an exact match; just pick whatever comes closest to your preference.
Based on these answers, you will be given two slips of paper when you arrive at the location. These provide important details about your identity, including possible motivations for heading to New Babylon and a connection with someone at the outpost. Don’t worry if this sounds like too much work; you don’t need to memorize specifics, and you are not required to follow the written suggestions, though you will probably find them helpful.
Interactive theatrical productions sometimes throw their audiences into the deep end without a lifejacket. These bits of information will keep you afloat during your time at the outpost, providing information to help you interact with the characters without having to improvise on the spot. Moreover, the connection to another character is more than a lifejacket; it’s a lifeline. With different characters following different agendas, sometimes warning you not to trust others, it is difficult to overestimate the advantage of being aligned with one character in particular, whether it is a current member of a religious death cult worshipping at the altar of Lady Death or a former member of a military force led by Pestilence, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
That’s right: Abandoned is set in an honest to God Biblical apocalypse, not some post-nuclear wasteland. Though its setting has the grungy, grounded feel of a Mad Max movie, we are told that the Four Horsemen are riding somewhere offstage, and though the fanaticism of the death cult may be questioned, its mystical beliefs are assumed to be true. These world-building elements create a convincing sense that the events of Abandoned are a small part of a larger story, which hopefully will be extrapolated in later productions.
Abandoned Theatre Review: Outpost Murder Mystery
After checking in, you are escorted to the Outpost by an envoy from New Babylon, where you are welcomed by the seven residents. Everything seems friendly enough as you settle for a brief rest before resuming your journey. However, things go bad when the envoy suddenly collapses, dead. Did he suffer an allergic reaction to something, or was he poisoned? Either way, his death will provoke a reaction from New Babylon within one hour, leaving little time to ferret out the truth in the hope of preventing a merciless attack on the Outpost, which could potentially lead to the death of everyone there.
From here, Abandoned acts as a murder-mystery, with the audience aligning with various characters in the search for clues. Parallel with this is a proposed election to select leadership for the Outpost in this time of crisis. As outsiders, the audience is not deeply entangled in the relationships and tensions – and simmering animosity – in the Outpost, giving them a modicum of objectivity that can aid in solving the mystery.
The cult leader claims she knowns a ritual that will reveal the killer without fail, and no one seems to doubt her (nor should you). The problem is finding the necessary ingredients. To do that you will need to wheel and deal with the other characters, who may have other agendas than simply finding the killer. Along the way, you will get to know the people – their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their fine points. No one is perfect, but even the worst of them – even the killer – engenders sympathy.
Ultimately, solving the mystery does not resolve the plot. Instead, it provides a crisis that brings the characters’ true natures to light. This in turn determines how you vote in the election, and your vote does count. The election result determines the outcome. Will the new leader be able to save the Outpost from New Babylon’s expected reprisal? The answer to that question depends on you – there is more than one ending.
Abandoned Theatre Review: Conclusion
Abandoned succeeds because it works on two levels that compliment each other perfectly: it is simultaneously an enjoyable interactive experience and a dramatic emotional journey. Last Call Theatre does the best job of intimately engaging the audience with the story of an immersive play since at least Give Up the Ghost in 2019. Not only do you feel wrapped up in the fate of the Outpost; you know that fate rests in your hands, and your emotional engagement with the fictional residents feels surprisingly real. It almost has the intensity of a delusional Parasocial Relationship except that in this case it is not one-sided – even if it is fictional.
With its post-apocalyptic setting and downbeat setup, Abandoned affects a cynical pose bordering on nihilism. The world as we know it is dead, and the future holds no hope of happy endings. The most one can expect is survival. And yet the fate of a handful of survivors in an isolated outpost becomes a rousing struggle against the odds, which can lead to a conclusion that is somehow uplifting and even optimistic.
In this sense, the play’s self-description is a lie. Abandoned does offer a happy ending, even if it is simply the happiness you feel for having played a part in the experience.
Hollywood Gothique's Rating of Abandoned
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
We have enjoyed many immersive theatrical productions, but only a few have avoided the tradeoff between traditional dramatic values and the fun of interacting with the actors. Abandoned stands among the best, making it a must-see experience.
Abandoned runs November 4-20, with performances at 7pm Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays. Sugar Bank is located at 4414 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90004. Ticket prices range from $45-$60. For more information, go to lastcalltheatre.ticketleap.com/abandoned.
Crew: Director: Alexander Whitover. Creative Lead: Jacob Zorehkey. Producers: Ashley Busenlener,Nick Griffith, and Sabrina Sonner. Stage Manager: Riley Cole. Costume Designer: Kale Hinthorn. Sound Designer: Jason Pollak.
Cast: Michael DiNardo, Kale Hinthorn, Brit Franke, Shelby, Ryan Lee, Jason Pollak, Philip Saguil, Mikey Takla, Elena Scaringe-Peene (understudy).