Going Back in Time with ‘Under the Big Top: Atlas’ (Review)

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All photos feature Claire Chapelli as Kittie Fletcher
Photos Courtesy of Model05 Productions

In 1928, a devastating flood marked the final performance of the Duo Denarius Circus. Over 200 people were killed in the catastrophe and your boss at Envision Technologies, Dr. Olivia Xanders, has asked you to go back in time to that cataclysmic night. Per her instructions, you will interact with various troupe members, unravel their individual stories, find a mysterious automaton, collect clues, and — hopefully — prevent the flood from happening.

Like previous Speakeasy Society shows, Under the Big Top will unfold in chapters. The first, Atlas, is running through July 24 at Two Bit Circus. (If you miss this one, note that you don’t have to attend these performances in order to get the story.)

In Atlas, you and up to one other person will go back in time to meet with Kitty, a member of the trapeze act The Flying Bertollis. (Kitty is double-cast, with actresses Dasha Kittredge and Claire Chapelli portraying her on alternate nights. The night I attended, Kittredge was performing.)

Time travelers will leave the frenetic, high-tech environment of Two Bit Circus and meander down a long hall to find Kitty’s dressing room. The attention to detail — a trunk full of petticoats, a vanity scattered with perfume and cosmetics — make the space feel lived in rather than contrived. Kitty stands in the center in sparkling tights and frilly boy shorts, fussing over her costume.

Upon spotting you, Kitty assumes you are her new assistants, come to help her get dressed for her next act. There’s no time to waste and she quickly draws you into her world, and her timeline, by asking you to help her unlace the corset she has on and replace it with another. It’s a task she expects you to do with little hesitation. My companion, a man, was noticeably flustered when she demanded he help her snap up the front of her scarlet corset. Exasperated, she tells him that if he wants to be a circus stagehand, he must become comfortable with things like this. But before the two of us bumbling, timid interlopers can get her into her next ensemble, our incompetence provokes a full-on temper tantrum.

Yet Kitty is not the cliche you might instantly take her for. She’s not having a diva meltdown. She’s having a really, really hard night — a night she has no idea will get even worse when the flood hits. Composing herself, Kitty invites you to sit and listen to her story. It begins when she’s a teenage performer who does tricks atop her beloved horse (whose stage name is Atlas) and continues to the present. Though Kitty’s story is, essentially, a monologue, the intimacy with which it is conveyed makes it extremely compelling. She’s not just opening up to you, but asking you to mimic parts of the tragic, exhilarating journey that led her here.

After you’ve learned all you’ll learn about Kitty, you are released back into the beeping, booping neon that is Two Bit Circus. It’s a simple, effortless shift from one circus to the other. But the story doesn’t end there.

While your time with Kitty is rooted entirely in 1928, there is optional content you can unlock in the present. Kitty will give you an object that will lead you down a rabbit hole of puzzles. You can solve them at Two Bit or your house — anywhere you have internet access. I saw the show on a Wednesday and solved my puzzles on Friday evening, for instance. Doing this will give you a little more insight into what’s going on at Envision Technologies, and it also ties into some of the other puzzle-centric meta-games Two Bit has been running since it opened last summer.

As for Under the Big Top, what it does well is pair a compelling mystery with an empathetic character, brilliantly brought to life by a dynamic Kittredge. With a clunkier script or a poor actor, this might not feel immersive enough. It almost has a campfire quality, in that someone beckons you to sit and listen, sans distraction, to a story. You’re an audience, but barely a character. But, the writing and the acting are good and so when she tells her story, she tells it specifically to you. Your present becomes her present. When she asks you for advice, you really want to tell her something poignant, nearly forgetting that she’s hours away from drowning. It isn’t until the final moments of your time with her that you recall you’re a time traveler on a mission and not a new member of a doomed circus.

This is why it’s also fun to do the puzzles later. There’s no half-listening to Kitty while you’re scanning the room from clues. The two elements of the show are completely separate, and you can think back on your time with Kitty while you crack the clues at home (or wherever you can get internet). Additionally, if you snoop around Two Bit, you may find a few other pieces of the narrative. Note, you will not need to do this to solve your puzzles.

Frankly, I’m excited for the next chapters of Under the Big Top and it’s nice to see Two Bit becoming the immersive playground it always positioned itself to become.

Under the Big Top runs on select dates through July 24. Tickets are $70 and can be used by either one or two people per timeslot. (So, if you’re looking to save some cash, bring a friend and split the price.)

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