Credit: Tony Hitchcock

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Last fall, Flying V Theatre gave us Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail, a play inspired by the seminal, oft-upgraded computer game. Spooky Action’s Happy Hour might be that project’s inverse: It’s a live-action video game that borrows some of the trappings of improvised theater.

The brainchild of the European media collective machina eX, which staged an earlier version of Happy Hour in Zurich four years ago, this new American iteration is just successful enough to serve as proof-of-concept for more sophisticated interactive theater productions that seem destined to follow. Spooky Action has divided its church-basement space into a soundstage and a bar, albeit one that serves only wine, beer, and soft drinks. Participants are encouraged to get a beverage and mingle before they’re assigned to one of two teams, seated at separate tables.

Each team is responsible for the rescue of a character trapped in a room. Team members can survey their character’s surroundings via a live video feed projected on the wall. Set designer Kim Sammis has built game environments that appear inspired by horror films: There’s an abattoir, a room of shelves stocked with organs in jars, a child’s bedroom, and a curiously ordinary sitting room with a magazines. Are we awaiting a blood-harrowing teeth-cleaning and checkup?

While you and your teammates can see and hear the avatar you’re controlling, he can’t see or hear you. You can give your avatar instructions only via cards representing the various objects and tools available in each room; the team must determine the right combination of objects and sequence of actions to advance their character to the next level. If you can’t spring your guy from the labyrinth in under 40 minutes, he’s stuck there. You lose.

The four-person cast alternates roles: The two serving as bartender and emcee in one game will portray the two captives in the next. In the game I attended on a recent Saturday night, Matthew Marcus was the louche emcee, Carolyn Kashner the wry barmaid, and Robert Bowen Smith our amusingly panicked avatar. (Stephanie Tomiko was the other team’s avatar; I can say nothing of her performance because only the other team could see it.) Smith conjured up a performative thickness that emulated how frustratingly primitive video games once were. For example, when we gave him a command involving the cards for “backpack” and “water bottle,” he placed his water bottle in his backpack, as we’d intended. But when we replaced “water bottle” with “pistol,” his response was to shoot the backpack rather than place the gun inside it.

This negotiation of the interface’s limitations is part of the experience of any game. In the case of Happy Hour, the countdown clock and the friends or strangers at your table keep it from becoming tedious. While this iteration feels hamstrung by limitations of budget, physical space, and performing time, it’s enough to point your imagination toward more elaborate and immersive theatrical games. It gives you permission to play.

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