Walking Shadow Theatre Company – Cabal [Reaction]

White Stag party

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Date Played: May 31, 2022

Team Size: 6-10

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: Sliding scale $45/ 52/ 60 per player

Ticketing: Public

Accessibility Consideration: Flashing lights and loud sounds

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

I first encountered Walking Shadow Theatre Company through Reboot, an online play with puzzles. When the opportunity arose to see Cabal while visiting Minneapolis, I was eager to experience their in-person approach to a play with puzzles.

In Cabal, Walking Shadow Theatre Company made both immersive theater and puzzles approachable for audience members new to either, while also providing a compelling reason to explore both these genres more deeply. With light actor interactions, audience members were part of the story without ever being singled out or put on the spot. The puzzles were equally accessible — complementary to the setting and narrative, and designed more around exploration and process than aha. If you have friends or family who are typically reluctant to play escape rooms, but who’d enjoy a magical dose of theater, Cabal is the show for them.

A performer looking concerned in a beautiful parlour.
Image via David Pisa

Above all else, the actors put on a stunning performance and the setting was utterly enchanting. I loved seeing a space that felt reminiscent of an escape room, yet was built and run as a theatrical set.

For theater lovers in the Twin Cities area, I recommend checking out Cabal. This was not an escape room and should not be approached as such, though I believe escape room enthusiasts will equally enjoy Cabal as an interactive narrative experience.

A Play with Puzzles?

Cabal began the moment we entered the venue, but really, it began from the point of first contact: booking. For a show that experiments with medium, expectation-setting is of the utmost importance. And as “escape room” and “immersive theater” continue to encompass a wider spectrum of experiences, we’ve yet to standardize new terms with more precise designations. Walking Shadow’s tagline of choice — “A Play with Puzzles” — is as good as any, straight to the point without being overly prescriptive. Yet, without knowing any better, some of my more puzzle-inclined fellow audience members still had to recalibrate their expectations mid-show.

So, what is Cabal? Is it an escape room? No, not really. As the nuance of the show’s tagline suggests, Cabal was foremost a work of immersive theater, supported by light puzzles as a vehicle for audience interaction.

As Immersive Theater

As immersive theater, Cabal was a sumptuous delight. Hidden within the old General Mills research facility, where Cheerios and Wheaties are rumored to have been invented, an unassuming doorway midway down a particularly sterile hallway led into a mysteriously ornate, crimson-wallpapered sitting room. With an imposing wooden fireplace, stained glass chandelier, and strange portraits lining the walls, it felt as though we’d stepped into the concealed abode of a secret society.

And indeed we had. Shortly after entering, our initiation into the Order of the White Stag began.

A codex open to a page with writing and a sigil.
Image via David Pisa

Throughout Cabal, both the set design and acting were superb. Each scene was a feast for the eyes, with an effective contrast of maximalist and minimalist aesthetics. A plethora of reclaimed objects and bold lighting choices made for a moody, artsy, and at times whimsical vibe. I would love to see some of Cabal‘s theatrical set design approaches applied in more escape rooms.

As beautiful as the set was, I was equally focused on the actors, who put on a compelling performance. Subtle facial expressions, nuanced inflections in their speech — these small details really pop in a closeup immersive show and communicate as much narrative as the actors’ words.

Cabal was fully scripted, and it was occasionally unclear whether we could react or have an impact on the direction of the narrative, outside of when we were directly prompted. While audience members had an explicit role in the Order, the impulse to assist was counterbalanced by the feeling that we were often watching on-rails scenes as spectators rather than participants.

As Immersive Theater With Puzzles

Puzzles were interspersed amongst scenes with actors. The objects or information used for each puzzle arose from the environment, and the output of the puzzle led back into the story. The puzzles were of an appropriate length and low difficulty level for a general audience, though being mostly task-based, escape room enthusiasts may find them to be lacking some depth or originality. Each puzzle required collaboration and communication in some form, giving each member of the large audience something to do.

A performer looking worried while holding out a stick, surrounded by the audience.
Image via David Pisa

This all flowed smoothly. The puzzles generally fit with the pacing of the show and were well tested. Furthermore, certain puzzles provided clever little twists to common puzzle formats that elegantly shaped our specific interactions.

In talking with one of the creators after the show, I learned that they have actually been experimenting with this crossover between theater and puzzles since before the advent of real-life escape rooms. This puzzle-theater hybrid worked better than most other immersive shows I’ve seen that have attempted to incorporate puzzles.

But I believe it could have been even more.

For puzzles to be truly part of, rather than just accompany, narrative, either:

  • The puzzle mechanic — the action you are led to take during the puzzle — can have some narrative meaning, or
  • There can be an in-world justification for why the puzzle exists and why you specifically are solving it.

These design considerations also help address another very common problem seen when having actors in the room while you’re solving puzzles: the actors become momentarily extraneous, then have to reinsert themselves once the puzzle is solved and the scene resumes. The actors in Cabal stayed fully in character during puzzle sequences, but in an ideal world, they could have stayed more active throughout.

This is all easier said than done, and few creators have done it well. Lacking these deeper layers didn’t hold Cabal back from being a fantastic production. But treating this more as an extra credit exercise than direct critique, I suspect that this union of puzzles and story is what the creators ultimately hope to accomplish. Having seen these creators design puzzles with more narrative progression in Reboot, and in particular in the follow-up text adventure, I know they have the chops.

Tips For Visiting

  • Tickets are now on sale through the end of August, and I believe the run will be further extended.
  • As of July 2022, proof of a COVID-19 vaccination and booster, or a supervised negative test result within 72 hours prior to the show, are required for entry to the show. Additionally, audience members are required to wear non-cloth masks the entire show.
  • There is a parking lot.
  • Cabal includes references to magic and the occult.

Book your showing of Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s Cabal, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Walking Shadow Theatre Company comped our tickets for this production.

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