Review: ‘Happy Hour’ at Spooky Action Theater

A ticking clock is an amazing motivator. So is competition. Blend them together with a dose of live theatre and some spectacular technology, and you have Happy Hour, created by machina Ex and presented by Spooky Action Theater, in partnership with Goethe-Institut Washington.

 Stephanie Tomiko and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Stephanie Tomiko and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Originally performed in a bar (hence the name) in Germany in 2012, machina Ex created a theatre experience that merges the popular “escape the room” scenario with a point-and-click computer game reminiscent of King’s Quest or The Longest Journey. As a gamer, the task is simple: use commands to direct your avatar to solve puzzles with the items in the environment and exit the room. As an audience member controlling a live actor with every second counting down as you race against the other team, it’s a little more complicated.

Directed by Yves Regenass and Gillian Drake and adapted for the US production by Lasse Marburg and Jan Philip Steimel, this production is as far from your typical theatre experience as one can go. Programs aren’t handed out until the end of the show. The actors mingle with the crowd (who may or may not have realized it) before the show begins. Instead of the lights dimming, the video projections are turned on. Audiences are instructed to put on their headphones.

Carolyn Kashner. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Carolyn Kashner. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

There is much to be lauded in this wholly original production that is undeniably a new and rising art form.

Without giving too much away, the goal of the team is to navigate their avatar through a series of puzzles to escape the room they are currently in, before the other team escapes theirs. Using items found in the room, the audience can directly command their actor to perform actions that could lead to their success — or demise.

As the audience is ushered into the “bar,” Robert Bowen Smith greets each person and offers them a complimentary beverage. Seated at two separate tables, the red team and the blue team waited for further instruction, soon to be given through their headphones. Stephanie Tomiko’s velvety smooth voice provided guidance as the audience progressed through the game. And Carolyn Kashner and Matthew Marcus, as the on-screen avatars controlled by the two teams, not only performed admirably with any wacky combination of actions their table threw at them, but also provided quick and witty quips that seemed so natural they couldn’t be ad-libbed. The actors alternate roles at each performance, and combining that with the almost unlimited combinations of actions from the audience, no two shows will be exactly the same.

Matthew Marcus. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Matthew Marcus. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Happy Hour is one of the most unique pieces of theatre ever created, a truly visionary imagination of what art can be when combined with serious technological mastery. Whether you’re more of a gamer geek or a theatre aficionado, Happy Hour is an experience not to be missed.

Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.


Happy Hour plays through June 12, 2016 at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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