Strother Gaines, Jenny Splitter, and Dana Malone.
Strother Gaines, Jenny Splitter, and Dana Malone. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The year is 2028 and the populist-controlled Republic has driven the tattered remnants of the Resistance underground. The Dupont Underground, that is—the short-lived Eisenhower-era trolley station that became a shorter-lived Clinton-era food court and was re-reborn, at the dawn of the Trump era an art space. Anyway, after years of populist rule and civil rebellion, a powerful West Coast tech concern called The Family wants to help rebuild the former District of Columbia in its Jobsian image. And you, as a newly welcomed member of the Resistance, will have to decide whether you wish to abet this pitiless act of urban renewal or oppose it.

That’s roughly the premise of Cabaret Rising, an ambitious immersive theater project from Tradition Be Damned, d.b.a. TBD Immersive. The nascent company specializes in the sort of improv-heavy, audience-exploration storytelling that got a big boost in visibility with Sleep No More. Immersive theater’s first blockbuster opened seven years ago in Manhattan’s “McKittrick Hotel”—a derelict warehouse complex brilliantly rehabilitated as the five-story stage for a Macbeth-and-film-noir-inspired mystery. At least some of Sleep No More’s success has been due to repeat customers, because the nature of the show is such that individual audience members can pursue a substantially different narrative with each visit, depending on which drawers or closets or secret rooms they choose to snoop in.

That’s what the principals of TBD want for Cabaret Rising, too. “We ask our audience to become storytellers with us,” says Amanda Haddock, who plays the role of Madame Martine, top-hatted leader of the Resistance. “We give them a voice and an opportunity to join the story.”

While attendees who pony up the $35-$75 fare (earlier entry costs more) are free to sit with their drinks and watch a variable lineup of burlesque artists play the crude nightclub that’s been set up on the southern end of space, they can have a more complete—or exhausting, if you’re of a less gregarious temperament—experience by wandering. 

“It’s kind of up to you where you go,” says Strother Gaines, TBD’s producing artistic director. He and his confederates have dotted the 75,000-square-foot space with carnival-style kiosks and multimedia artwork. There are LED columns and abstract video projections playing on a loop. The space is also thickly populated with actors who will accost you, theme-park style, to perform right in your face. Give one of them an opening, conversation-wise, and you may find yourself enlisted to deliver a message or solve a riddle.

Speaking during a lunch break from a daylong tech rehearsal on a frigid, rainy Sunday, Gaines, improv director/producer Dana Malone, and playwright Jenny Splitter take care to specify which of Cabaret Rising’s varied artistic constituencies they’re talking about. There are the 14 “core” cast members, who have scripted dialogue to speak and key plot points to advance. There are another 16 members of the “fabric” cast, who populate and color the world but don’t necessarily have major story-shouldering duties. Finally, there’s a variable number of dancers, jugglers, crooners, acrobats, and fire-breathers. (Because the Dupont Underground is confined and also underground, the role of “fire” is played at all performances by its calmer understudy, LED lights.) 

The costumes evince a steampunk aesthetic that’s equal parts KitKatClub and Blade Runner. In the unheated space, you may envy some players in their long leather coats and pity others with bared midriffs. It all feels more like sneaking into the Cirque du Soleil cast party than attending a play.

That confluence of multi-disciplinary talent is a selling point for the artists as well as the audience, says Malone. “It’s all these people who have mutual artistic crushes on one another, all able to hold space in the same show in different ways.”

The show’s architects convened when Gaines was hired in the late summer of 2016 to organize an immersive entertainment for that year’s TEDx Mid-Atlantic conference. Needing to find backup in a hurry, he contacted some old friends. He and Malone had met in 2009 when they were both performing in the International Spy Museum’s “Operation Spy” interactive game. He directed Splitter’s Capital Fringe Festival Show The Dish in 2014. (Jessica Bylander, whose title is “playwright and vague consultant,” was the other founding member. She contributed some narrative material to Cabaret Rising, though she relocated to Colorado in late 2017.) 

The one-off performance they put together pleased them and their audience enough that they were keen to further their collaboration. They applied for and were awarded a Space 4 grant from CulturalDC to put on a show—quickly—at the Blind Whino arts space in Southwest. Opening night of In Cabaret We Trust was just 42 days after they got the grant. It kicked off the saga of a near-future D.C. under the rule of a reactionary senator, one who executed a journalist at the climax of the show.

Cabaret Rising is a direct sequel. The briefing you’re given as you enter is enough to get those who missed or have only a hazy recollection of the earlier show oriented. (An eight-page comic book prologue, written by Bylander and drawn by a coterie of artists, is available for purchase.) Madame Martine (Haddock), who lost her husband in the rebellion and who now runs the Resistance Cabaret, is rumored to be in negotiations with The Family, which is about to market a new wearable tech product called The Fingerprint. Some members of her flock have begun to suspect her motives are impure. Meanwhile, the underground to which the Resistance fighters have fled has its own indigenous population of possibly supernatural tenants, and nobody knows what they might want.

By design, it’s a more shaded story than the simple Resistance-versus-Republic narrative of their prior effort, a step up in narrative ambition that parallels the physical challenge of giving themselves a larger venue to fill. “For this one, we wanted to explore what happens when the Resistance fractures,” Splitter says. (250 is the per-show audience max, though Gaines and Splitter say they’d be very happy with 60 percent of that.)

Rachel Pendergrass is a member of the “fabric cast,” but also the show’s chief house manager, which means she will occasionally break character to help keep audience members in the space where they’re permitted to be. A self-identified “giant immersive theater nerd,” she volunteered her services at the latter, sold-out performances of In Cabaret We Trust, where audience members occasionally internalized the what-you-will ethos a little too liberally. 

“You have to set up these very clear rules, but also, because it’s a plot line about rebellion, there’s sort of a natural desire to want to test the limits of those rules,” she says. The safe-word strategy she found most effective for communicating to patrons that, to cite one example, the CAST ONLY signs were to be obeyed, was to state the year. “Saying, ‘Hi, I’m in 2017 right now and you need to stop’ works pretty well,” she says.

A recent BuzzFeed story documented a series of alleged gropings and even more severe  abuses by audience members against Sleep No More performers, abetted by the fact that attendees of that show are made to wear masks. Anonymity combined with booze and an atmosphere that’s been designed to feel as otherworldly as possible can be a recipe for trouble. But the audience isn’t wearing masks in Cabaret Rising, and there will be professional security staff present to eject anyone who gets disruptive or handsy.

Malone says that most instances of audience members being swept up in their roles during In Cabaret We Trust were more welcome. “The empathy that people showed to different characters that they perceived were in trouble” particularly moved her. “Folks would pull them aside and ask them, ‘What can I do for you? How can I help you? Let me get you out of here?’” she recalls. One patron even tried to break up a fistfight that was in fact a performative altercation between two actors, carefully choreographed and rehearsed.

“We’ve tried to continue to explore those empathetic responses in this show, but with more constraints.”

Through March 4 at Dupont Underground. 19 Dupont Circle NW. $35-75. (919) 265-8925.