One of the more psychologically thrilling things out there this Halloween season is a play called Listening Glass, the latest production from Seattle Immersive Theatre.
In this play, the audience assumes the role of a group touring a police station. This tour, as the set-up goes, is special because instead of just wandering through a bunch of offices and seeing how the jail works, you get to watch an interrogation. Since the audience plays a defined role, you feel immersed in the action of the play.
But my immersion experience started before I even walked in the door.
A Lyft dropped me off in an alley in Sodo behind Emerald City Trapeze. I followed some signs through a maze of corrugated aluminum buildings until I found the 6th Ave. entrance to the performance space.
The company had transformed one of those old buildings into a full-scale model of the Maricopo Police Department, a fictional precinct somewhere in Virginia. I was invited to sign in and collect my special access badge at the front desk, which doubled as a bar. Cocktails were offered and served in mugs. (Get the "Stake Out." The "Jailbreak" is too sweet.) Feeling like a regular Special Agent Dale Cooper with a mug full of sugar booze, I inspected the rest of the facility. Forensics rooms featured cork boards and white boards splattered with crime scene photos (a body had been lacerated at the neck and all over the upper torso). There were also police reports and sticky notes with words like "sexual assault? E.M. says yes" written on them. Alka-Seltzer tablets sat beside to-go cups of coffee (stained at the mouth). Framed photos of fallen officers and portraits of Barack Obama dotted the walls.
Officer Elina Grant (Melissa Topscher) and Detective Charles Knapp (Kent Taylor) mulled about, answered radio calls, talked to each other and some of the staff. People were eating donuts (available for free in the break room), making ramen, and telling cop jokes.
As a small crowd filled the lobby, some of the actors broke character because some of the crowd members knew them, but that fact somehow made the scene feel more strange. Suddenly, I couldn't even trust the other audience members. I didn't know who was an audience member and who was a detective. Then a very disturbed-looking dude in sweatpants sat down in the chair and I knew shit was about to go down.
Officer Elina Grant led the group into a viewing area that surrounded an interrogation room. The room contained four one-way mirrors, wherein the majority of the play's action takes place. We were given audio receivers so that we could hear Detective Charles Knapp interrogate Jamie Bennett (Randall Scott Carpenter), a schizophrenic veteran of the Iraq war suspected of murdering a guy named Jonathan, the dude whose lacerated body I'd seen tacked to a cork board earlier.
I was looking over Detective Knapp's shoulder the whole time, facing the perp head on. Since I had my theater reviewer's notebook and pen out, I also felt as if I were somehow participating in the play—another audience member could easily have assumed that I was hired to look like a crime reporter.
Through the headphones (audience members were assured the buds were sanitized) voices whispered "murderer" and "his liver was shredded" as well as general insults, grunts, and screams. The intention was clear: we were all inside Jamie's head. We were hearing the auditory hallucinations he was hearing. Initially, this move felt a little gimmicky—it's hard to take seriously anyone whispering the word "murderer"—but the voices changed throughout the play in productive ways. Sometimes they told clairvoyant truths that moved the plot along, sometimes they told lies that made me suspicious of Jamie's alibi. But, because I was experiencing for the first time what it's like to have an endless string of auditory hallucinations playing on loop in my head, my sympathies lied for the most part with Jamie.
Another potentially gimmicky thing that actually totally worked: Because of his psychological condition, Jamie's word choices seemed as if they were constantly being autocorrected. These choices were patterned, as if the playwright (Jerome M. Virnich) had done a find and replace for a bunch of words. Some of these word substitutions were funny and affecting, others were loaded. He says "shoe," for instance, instead of "walk," so he calls a sidewalk a "sideshoe." On that loaded tip: instead of "remember" he says "dismember."
Strong performances on the part of Carpenter and Taylor made potentially gimmicky choices feel organic and necessary to telling the story. Jamie spoke with a soft, nervous voice, which smoothed over the jarring and mechanical word substitutions. He had a sweet face that could turn evil very quickly and very convincingly, and a small body that could seem to swell to double its size when enraged. In this way, he embodied the play's theme: the horror of ambiguity, the terror of the unknown. At any given moment in the play, I could convince myself that he had done it AND that he had not done it.
Five minutes into the play I was super fucking immersed. Any breaking-of-the-fourth-wall (or the fifth, or sixth?) awkwardness in the lobby immediately vanished once the interrogation began. An hour and twenty minutes flew by and suddenly I was dumped back into the lobby, squinting under halogen lights, half-reading posters about standard operating procedures for cops. "Never assume you have control of the situation." Members of the company invited the dazed audience to stick around for another drink. We were offered a chat with the actors and people on the production team. I elected to leave. I was too scared.
Listening Glass runs Thursdays—Sundays, Oct. 1—Oct. 30.