Financial District, Lower Manhattan
Through September 26, free
To say too much about Woodshed Collective’s marvelously inventive Empire Travel Agency would ruin the endless surprises that make this wholly immersive production the most engaging trip of the season. Yet it is difficult not to want to share at least some of the chills and thrills that occur over the course of two and a half intense and involving hours. Six nights a week at thirty-minute intervals, four lucky individuals in four separate groups go on a wild journey through the dark passageways of Lower Manhattan, caught up in the middle of a dangerous battle over a mysterious substance. It all begins with a call at a pay phone — yes, a few of them still work — and then you are led from narrow streets through public plazas, private galleries, cars, the subway, and more. Be prepared to do plenty of walking, and climbing up and down a lot of stairs, as you get serenaded by the Avant Guardsmen, play a few games of Ordo, and meet a series of shady characters, beginning with Dr. Hans Bidity, who welcomes you to the Hidden City Excursion and proudly announces, “The only alliance I feel is to the truth. And secret societies.” From there — well, again, we’ve already said too much. (But just who is Rhonda Cadwallader?)
Empire Travel Agency is no mere gimmicky shtick. It works because, first and foremost, Jason Gray Platt’s (There Was No Time Before the War, Agnosiophobia) script is well laid out and compelling, tackling with intelligence and wry humor such topics as Manhattan real estate, the New York City art market, government conspiracies, and constant surveillance. “Yeah, the animals are cooped up in this little cage, but can you be free in a confined space?” Frank asks. “I say, sure, we’re all livin’ inside some kinda boundary — city, country, planet, whatever, and you can decorate your little dollhouse however you like. Can you be free when you are under observation? No you cannot.” Woodshed artistic director Teddy Bergman (Twelve Ophelias, The Tenant) keeps it all moving at an exciting pace while still allowing for a few breathers as the uniformly excellent large cast (featuring particularly fine performances by Rosalie Lowe, Roger Lirtsman, Nicole Golden, and Phillip Taratula) guides you through some very cool small spaces designed by Gabriel Hainer Evansohn. You really have to let go if you want to enjoy the proceedings to the fullest; you will be touched and jostled, you’ll have to be extremely trusting of strangers, and you’ll be expected to improvise with the actors so you can dig deeper into the intriguing, if wacky, story. Oh, and did we say it’s all free? You will be asked for a five-dollar donation for an early imbibement that also serves as a souvenir, although you won’t need a physical object to help you remember this delirious production that takes adventurous, immersive, participatory theater to a whole new level.