A return trip yields new insights about the show and immersive theatre.
This past week, I had the opportunity to see two immersive shows for a second time. First, I took a repeat trip through time via Delusion: The Blue Blade; the following day, I returned for a second dinner with The Willows family. It’s The Willows I’ll be writing about today, but one thing I have always loved about immersive theater is its inherent replay value. A second visit offers something both familiar and new, with the sense that a third try would unveil even more. It’s more than just noticing an Easter egg you missed. It’s discovering things you could have only experienced were you skilled in astral projection.
For those of you who have never seen The Willows, I’d advise reading our earlier review. For those who simply need a refresher, it’s a single night in the Willows’ home where you and several other guests sit down to dinner to celebrate the life of the late Jonathan Willows. Jonathan, as you will learn, was many things: a sensitive poet and painter; a beloved son, brother, nephew, cousin, and husband; a young man who died with lungs full of water and a heart full of secrets.
It’d been about a year since I dined with The Willows. The first time, I was required to meet my fellow guests at a corner where we were blindfolded and shoved in a van that ferried us to our destination. This time, the invite led me right to their house, as though they now trusted me. I was warmly received by Lindsey, the faithful butler, and immediately whisked upstairs to meet with Rosemary, the matriarch. On our way, we brushed by Angela, the delightfully bratty sister with whom I’d spent the bulk of my first visit.
It is worth stating and restating that Melinda DeKay does an incredible job playing Rosemary, whose stern, often cruel demeanor is delicately wrapped in a facade of elegance and refinement. Rosemary remembered I had been to her home before and thanked me for coming back. She recited one of her son’s poems from memory and soon her eyes glazed over as she sank back in time, into a distant reverie. When she snapped out of it, she suggested I see myself out.
In this way, The Willows made it clear they remembered me and dared me to empathize with the one character that seemed too cold to melt.
But apart from this encounter, I wondered what new things I might learn about the family. We went through all the same motions we had before: cocktail hour, dinner, games, dancing. Yet as it turns out, I had missed quite a bit my first time.
For instance, when I sat down to dinner, I was placed opposite Angela and next to troubled cousin Conrad. Previously, I had been seated next to Angela. I was initially disappointed by the seating arrangement, thinking I might glean nothing new from the youngest members of the Willows family; after all, this was almost exactly where I sat last time. Yet this time, Conrad allowed me to look in his special notebook while Angela gossiped with someone else. This enabled me to learn secrets I hadn’t known, including a big one that explained so much about Jonathan’s pre-death angst.
I had also wondered what it meant to be back, to have the same dinner with the same people, repeating the same dance at Rosemary’s behest. I couldn’t be an interloper in an identical loop, because the family remembered me. Time had passed. So why was everything so exceedingly similar? How many dinners just like this had they had? The watershed moment came when Deidre, the much-maligned and timid maid, pulled me aside and let me know that she knew we were in a Groundhog’s-Day-Meets-Wuthering-Heights scenario.
The rest of my time after that moment rang of familiarity, but more sinister. I knew what was coming, but I could not stop it. Before I had treated it like a murder-mystery dinner, something I could win if I gathered all the clues and fit them together. This time, I knew there was no grandiose mystery to solve. The Willows are who they are. Their hang-ups, their pettiness, their tragedies morphed into bizarre rituals and cyclical abuse. It finally became clear in a way it hadn’t before: I wasn’t just a spectator to a wacky, weird family; I was here to bear witness to the ravages of repression, deceit, hubris, and tragedy. There is no saving The Willows from their beautiful home and the darkness within. The only way to ‘win’ this game is to live out the fantasy they speak of, but will never achieve: get out of that house. And then, of course, maybe come back in a year. They’ll have warmed you a plate, new revelations folded into the batter.
I had a similar feeling at Delusion, which now boasts a new end to its time travel adventure, but also grapples with the idea of an eternal loop. This leads me to an interesting conclusion about immersive entertainment and the way some, myself included, approach it. Sometimes, I come in like it’s a big game that I can win if I get it all right. But this ‘good ending,’ as they say in video games, is nothing but a MacGuffin that may or may not exist. It’s the journey we’re after—the stories, the characters, their relationships, how that all makes us feel, how a hero can be a villain if you take a different path. To ignore all of this is to walk into an escape room and press the panic button then proudly declare, “I found a way out.” Sure, you did. But that wasn’t the point.