Review: Deep Into Darkness Ramps Up the Victorian Horror

Sydney Doberstein (left), Laura Carly Miller (centre), Leah Beaudry (right); Photo Credit: Taylor Kare

The world premiere of Deep Into Darkness, an immersive theatre experience at The Cultch (1895 Venables Street), is now running until August 25, 2019.

The production, centred on the final crazed days of writer Edgar Allan Poe, takes audiences on an uncanny journey into the nooks and crannies of the theatre space.

Deep Into Darkness is the brainchild of Laura Carly Miller and Sydney Doberstein (Third Wheel Productions) who co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed this unique show. The pair saw Sleep No More in New York and wanted to bring something similar to Vancouver. The result is a production that takes over the entire Cultch space, spanning 3 floors and 20 rooms.

When you arrive, you’ll be asked to select a tarot card. Turn it over and ponder the enigmatic image on the other side.

Right from the start, the production aims to disorient you since you’ll be separated from anyone you came with as you begin your exploration of the rooms (Don’t worry, you’ll be able to find each other later in the night … if you want to). You’ll also be instructed to wear masks, turning everyone into anonymous figures moving through the corridors and rooms.

Fraser Larock; Photo Credit: Danie Easton

First of all, Deep Into Darkness forces you to check your expectations at the door. Although it is a “theatrical experience,” you won’t find conventional aspects like actors on a stage performing scenes as part of an overarching plot. Besides a quick briefing at the beginning, nothing will be explained to you; everything will be unclear for quite some time, if not for the entire time.

Third Wheel Productions has transformed The Cultch into the subconscious of Poe, making it feel part Victorian Gothic space, part Halloween haunted house. The scenes have a ghoulish quality to them, from underground caverns with shriveled up cadavers to fantastical garden spaces of strange degeneration.

As you’re released on your voyage of discovery, you’ll be instructed to touch, open, and interact with items that you encounter. This means after getting over your initial hesitance, you’ll be opening drawers, sifting through the contents of jewelry boxes, and flipping through dusty books on shelves. What does it all mean? What are these rooms? What do these bits and pieces tell you about Poe and his feverish dreams? For those who want a bit more focus to their detective work, the production does provide clue sheets for filling in. You’ll also encounter guided activity spots that prompt you to answer poetic questions or draw something, for example.

You’ll quickly discover that you’re not alone in this bizarre imaginary world. Besides the other wandering masked audience members (who strangely become wordless and don’t really talk to one another, besides furtive whispering), actors circulate, mostly congregating in the Historic Theatre, but also found in the other various rooms and passageways.

Again, this isn’t a play in which actors recite dialogue to one another and it’s relatively clear where the story is going, who everyone is, and what their relationships to one another are. In this case, actors mostly moan, writhe, and physically gesture by themselves and to others. There is little in the way of speech. It’s akin to performance art, albeit in a crazed Victorian setting. Occasionally, they’ll make eye contact or guide audience members somewhere, but otherwise they don’t really respond to interaction.

Sydney Doberstein; Photo Credit: Taylor Kare

There is no discernible narrative, which, ultimately, seems to be the point. Poe in his last days apparently suffered a mental unraveling, the line between reality and fantasy becoming increasingly blurred. His writing itself explores the dark underside of the everyday, the macabre subconscious of humanity. Deep Into Darkness is very much about creating a certain atmosphere: one claustrophobic, alienating, and defamiliarizing. The relentlessly haunting music reinforces this feeling.

In essence, the show is what you choose to make of it. You could quickly breeze through the rooms and then enjoy a drink in the lounge while catching up with a friend (which some audience members did), or spend two hours meticulously sifting through every space, following actors around, and becoming a ghostly character yourself.

Further info and tickets can be found on-line. Note: Please wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to stand/walk for the duration of the show. This is an 18+ performance with adult themes, nudity, and violence.

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