Soon after my first major breakup I went to see an immersive theatre experience by the same company that created Sleep No More. Unlike that dance-based show, The Drowned Man was filled with scripted scenes and explicit plot. You still wore masks, you still wandered through different floors of incredible production design, but even more than its popular counterpart it felt like you sank into another world – specifically a Lynchian take on an early ’60s film studio.
Midway through this production one of the characters – a beautiful redheaded starlet with amnesia – pulled me into a side room for what’s known in immersive theatre as a one-on-one. She took off my mask and guided me through an extended scene that felt surprisingly real. She touched my face and asked for my help – spoke of a conspiracy out to get her. She held my hand as we went back into the crowd. She pulled me into another room and gave me a shot of whiskey. The whole thing ended with her dying – body limp on my shoulder in a car.
Afterwards I wandered around the show buzzing from the experience. It was the most intimate I’d been with someone since my breakup. Was I falling in love with this actress? I lingered by her body waiting to see what happened next. Eventually she got up, walked to where we first met, and pulled a different unsuspecting audience member into the room.
It was, of course, a performance.
Jason Segel’s new show Dispatches from Elsewhere is based on a documentary called The Institute about an experience that began in 2008 that some called a game, others called a cult, but that more or less acted as extended immersive theatre. Fliers promising surreal scientific opportunities led individuals to a place called the Jejeune Institute – and a series of clues and adventures.
This adaptation begins with the leader of the institute, Octavio Coleman, Esq. (Richard E. Grant) asking if we can skip the usual character exposition – before spending a significant amount of time on exactly that. The first character we meet is Jason Segel’s Peter. Octavio says, “Think of him as you.” No, thanks. He works on the data side of a company like Spotify and his life consists entirely of ennui. He’s a pointedly boring protagonist – shy, scared, well-meaning.
His depression is palpable and it’s no surprise when he looks for escape in this flier. He goes to the institute where he sits in a room and watches an intro video from our narrator Octavio. At its completion he finds a card telling him not to trust Octavio – with instructions on how to escape the building – and so the game begins.
He’s led to a place called the Store of Beautiful Things where he meets Simone – she slams him against a wall and threatens to kill him. When she realizes he’s also just playing the game, she loosens up and asks if he wants to go through the experience together.
Simone is played by Eve Lindley whose magnetic performance acts as a necessary foil to Segel’s often one-note demeanor. It’s not entirely clear why Simone is so receptive to Peter, but if I’ve learned one thing from the male-amorous trans women in my life sometimes all it takes is for a guy to be 6’4.
The first episode sets up Simone as the embodiment of a Manic Pixie Trans Girl. She’s delightfully chaotic, she introduces Peter to new music, and she slowly brings him out of his dull personality. She walks towards Peter – us – in slow motion looking absolutely radiant – stylized romantic objectification.
But at the end of the first episode the perspective shifts. We watch Simone walk home, as Octavio narrates her headspace, and then she fends off an attack from two strange men. She gets home and seems to be fighting off a panic attack. We cut back to Octavio, who has a new request. “This is Simone,” he says. “Think of her as you.”
It’s a powerful subversion that carries over into a second episode that focuses entirely on Simone. We learn that the fearlessness Peter saw in her couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s just as isolated and unhappy as Peter – she’s just been forced to put up a better façade.
During Octavio’s introduction, addressed to us as Simone, he says, “You finally worked up the courage to do the one thing you knew would make everything different – the thing that would at last fill the hole that had been silently growing within – only to find something terrifying waiting on the other side. You still felt exactly the same.”
It’s a staggering moment considering how often media frames transition as the key to a trans person’s happiness. Simone’s transness and need to transition is never doubted – it’s just not enough to rid her of all her problems. The scars from a life of isolation remain, the daily struggles of being a person remain.
With this in mind, her interactions with Peter become far more interesting. She describes herself as “bitter Amélie” and like that movie there are new layers of depth when the artsy weird girl is allowed the privilege of protagonism. Due to Lindley’s performance, the rare complexity granted to this trans character, and Simone’s more interesting internal struggles, the episode ended with me wishing that the show was entirely from Simone’s perspective. Or maybe I just wanted more of an experience I so rarely get to have – a show told me to think of a character as myself and I didn’t have to ignore my transness to do so.
The next two episodes promise to dive into two more supporting characters – Sally Field’s realist and André Benjamin’s conspiracy theorist – and I’m interested to see what happens when the show moves beyond these introductions. The actual specifics of what’s happening to these people fail to intrigue like the characters themselves. While there’s certainly no shortage of creativity, it’s hard to care about the next clue when it all feels so fake. Peter insists the experience might be real, but those aren’t the stakes the show sets up. It feels like these people are playing a game, which is fine if the game is just a quirky device rather than something more. Either the show needs to commit to the deeper truths of its characters or ground its scavenger hunt in some sense of reality – I’m hoping it does both.
There’s a moment towards the end of the second episode when the game leads Peter and Simone to a rooftop. Simone is afraid of heights so Peter puts his arm up as a human guardrail so she can look out at the stunning view they’re meant to see. In this moment, the experience becomes, simply, an experience. They are on this roof, they are seeing what they’re seeing, they are sharing this moment of physical and emotional intimacy. It doesn’t matter that it’s manufactured.
Two years after The Drowned Man I went to go see Sleep No More and I had another one-on-one. I was in a much healthier place emotionally – and knew what to expect – so I wasn’t foolish enough to fall in love with the actress this time. Except, turns out, I did. We chatted at the bar after the show and then dated for three and a half years.
“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare. “Life itself is a game,” said Jeff Hull, the creator of the real Jejeune Institute. Sometimes fiction or manufactured experiences – be it a cruise ship, an adult summer camp, or an immersive theatre show – provide us opportunities to connect in ways that are very real. If Dispatches from Elsewhere chooses to focus on that truth – instead of getting lost in its own whimsy – it might prove to be a game worth playing.