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Review: Why the ‘immersive’ theatre trend leads to regressive theatre like Hogtown

The ladies of the speakeasy: Louise "Lulu" Hearts (Laura Larson), Maddie Foster (Karen Slater) & Anastasia (Emma Wiechers).

Hogtown/Sam Gaetz

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Hogtown: The Immersive Experience
Written by
Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal
Directed by
Sam Rosenthal
Music
Douglas Price and Paul Humphrey
Venue
Campbell House
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, August 20, 2017

Hogtown: The Immersive Experience is back for a second run this summer in Toronto – a sure sign that overall interest in "immersive" theatre has yet to die down.

Too bad for this theatre critic. I'm bored to death with the trend.

The idea behind this form of performance is simple: Rather than sitting in seats and watching a show, audience members are immersed in one.

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In the case of Hogtown, set in 1926 Toronto, this means wandering from scene to scene and room to room on all three floors of Campbell House – an 1822 building that was moved to the corner of Queen Street and University Avenue in the 1970s and transformed into a museum.

There's a speak-easy filled with jazz-singing flappers in the basement, while the Woman's Christian Temperance Union holds a meeting on the top floor. In between, on the main floor, the mayor and his rival in an upcoming election court an influential union boss. Twenty-three actors (all of whom were new to me) populate this world.

I skipped Hogtown last year because I've seen too many so-called immersive productions at Campbell House in recent years that were about as immersive as a half-deflated kiddy pool.

Most staged there involve herding spectators like sheep around the house from one makeshift theatre space filled with uncomfortable folding chairs to another, no real agency imparted to those in attendance.

It started to feel like a kind of Yakov Smirnoff joke: In immersive theatre, the set changes you.

Hogtown 's creators Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath start off their show by separating the audience into three smaller groups and ushering us through set-up scenes that take place on each of the floors of Campbell House.

After that, however, you are free to roam from room to room and follow whichever character you wish – and it gets more fun.

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I decided to mainly track the mayor's daughter, Maddy (Karen Slater), a singer in the speak-easy who has become pregnant by a small-time gangster. I watched her have two meetings with an abortionist, have a pair of fights with her boyfriend, and witnessed a couple of arguments with her father.

Everything felt doubled up and repeated – I guess in case someone who hadn't seen the earlier scenes swung by.

I liked Maddy's songs downstairs in what was wittily described as "the most lucrative blind pig in Hogtown" – and Slater played the character with a touching vulnerability.

But if you had watched her scenes play out in sequence on a regular old stage, you would be far from impressed. Carnwath and Rosenthal's dialogue is overloaded with 1920s slang to the point of absurdity – and the plot points are entirely predictable.

It is enjoyable to hear references to real-life Toronto history and characters, but they are mere garnish on an overall atmosphere drowning in American theatrical and film clichés.

Maddy, for instance, is just another showgirl with big dreams involved with a petty criminal and gambler who won't commit. Just take me to Guys and Dolls instead! And yet, immersive theatre as practised by the creators of Hogtown almost requires stereotypes and well-worn stories. After all, an audience member has to be able to enter a room and size up the situation in a second – it actually helps if you've seen it all before. Any originality in the writing, subtlety in performance, might lead to confusion – and forget about concepts like character development.

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It is for this reason the word "immersive" has moved from enticing to off-putting for me over the years.

A decade ago, when I interviewed for the position of theatre critic at The Globe and Mail, I was asked to talk about the piece of theatre I had seen recently that most excited me. I spoke with great enthusiasm about an adaptation of Faust by Punchdrunk, the British immersive dance-theatre company that later opened the off-Broadway sensation Sleep No More – a huge hit which has been running in a building in New York for six years.

I'm not the only one whose mind was blown by Punchdrunk – but too many of its army of imitators do not have the public funding or the commercial backers to pull off the large-scale, intricately designed environments that make its work so impressive. The closest to come to that calibre in the Greater Toronto Area was Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman's Brantwood, created with student performers at Sheridan College in a surplus elementary school in Oakville, Ont.

But the really exciting work I've seen in the city in recent years has taken the stodgy old form of drama.

A generation of North American playwrights is writing plays – some of which are even naturalistic and set in a single location – that take you into a world and make you fully feel a part of it, even as you remain apart from it in the audience.

You might even call the work "immersive," if that buzzword was not already taken by a genre of theatre that, ironically, all too often is about as deep as a puddle.

Hogtown continues to Aug. 20.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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