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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Theatre review: Deep Into Darkness is entirely what you make of it

Choose-your-own-adventure in this ambitious project based on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe

There really is no single, or best, way to witness Deep Into Darkness, the immersive theatre production which has taken over pretty much every nook and cranny inside The Cultch in East Vancouver. The experience is what you make it, and potentially in how you choose to take it in.

Given each audience member will experience Deep Into Darkness in their own unique way, I will recount how I decided to tackle this ambitious project on opening night.

Explore the entire venue

The production has taken over pretty much all of The Cultch. From its main theatre to the backstage hallways theatre-goers usually never see, there is a lot going on.

Taking a loop through the entire space you are presented with small tableaus often filled with oddities including books growing on trees, or a fantastical bedroom and forest. Other times it adds to the confusion of what is actually taking place, including a small bedroom where each time I passed by, characters were being undressed.

Sometimes characters appear, but more often than not you are left to your own devices or to be as bold as you like in exploring what has been laid out before you. When you do stumble across characters, the scene is often already in play. Having spent some time in one location (more on that below), I am confident had I seen these particular scenes from their start it would not have enhanced my understanding of what was going on.

While some of the displays are inventive, creepy, and mysterious, other attempts at transforming this massive space into a Victorian world are hit-and-miss. For example, as you walk up the staircase to the main theatre’s balcony, there is a sense of a cheap Halloween haunted house, with flashing lights, plastic plants, and cobwebs indiscriminately attached to the walls. Writing attached to the black-out paper on the windows brings focus to small pieces of parchment tied to the railings. They did little to enlighten.

The Culture Lab space inside The Cultch contained the most elaborate set-up. Unfortunately, I discovered this particular room very late during my visit as I would have spent more time exploring. It was simply magical. I was jealous of those audience members who were invited inside the tiny shack that had been erected in one corner. If only more of the venue was as beautiful, engaging, and wholly immersive.

Sydney Doberstein, Laura Carly Miller, and Leah Beaudry in Deep Into Darkness. Photo by Taylor Kare.
Sydney Doberstein, Laura Carly Miller, and Leah Beaudry in Deep Into Darkness. Photo by Taylor Kare.

Watch from a central viewing point

I spent another good portion of time just sitting and watching what transpired inside the main theatre, like a traditional theatrical performance.

Characters flitted in-and-out, but again there is little context. Told almost entirely through movement, with a few shrieks, groans and laughs thrown in, some of the scenes were dynamic to watch. The visuals with large scrims hanging from the theatre ceiling separated two playing spaces. Being on a loop, it started to get a little repetitive.

Ultimately though, similar to exploring the venue, the scenes provided no enlightenment in how it all comes together.

Follow a specific character

This one held out great promise, although in the end I realized the character I decided to follow spent the majority of his time just getting drunk.

There was one fantastic scene though where there was a “magic” fight of sorts in the venue’s bar as the drunk was attacked and fought back against a witch (?) and the bartender.

Giving up on my drunk, I then decided to follow a different character who, during the time I was following, did a lot of acrobatics and dance movement, largely running up-and-down the hallway of the upper level. At one point I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be her walking on the wall and ceiling. Given the tight quarters and other audience members blocking my view, it turned out she was actually interacting with another character. It was simply magical while the illusion lasted.

Go on the scavenger hunt

On arrival, my guest pointed out there was some sort of scavenger hunt available, complete with a prize if you finished. Since I wasn’t there to engage in a scavenger hunt, I chose to not participate.

It was evident though that many of the audience on opening night were. Exploring every inch of every tableau, they searched for the answers to complete their hunt while almost completely ignoring what was going on around them.

One supposes you could technically do both, as the “show” lasts for 2+ hours. Finish your scavenger hunt and then take in the rest.

It is what you make of it

Despite trying different tacks, what I experienced on opening night left me somewhat disappointed.  For such an ambitious project, it was a surprisingly passive experience that had me thinking that perhaps I had missed out by observing rather than scavenging.

The fact you only ever seeing fragments, no matter how hard you try to piece it all together, there is little narrative. It will be the most frustrating part of the night for anyone looking for a cohesive story.

In our recent interview with the co-creators, they hoped audiences walk away with “an emotional connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and life experiences” and “feel inspired and excited by the possibility of immersive experiences”.

In the end, the emotional connection never materialized. I was excited though by the possibilities a show like Deep Into Darkness can bring to an audience. I only wish it was more fulfilling. A narrative would definitely help. As would the addition of some dialogue.

Post-show I was pointed to some of the show “secrets”. From what I am told this information is not available to the general public until after they have seen the show, so I won’t provide any spoilers at their request.

I would recommend though brushing up on your Poe and reading the show’s FAQ as it may provide some clues that may enhance your own experience.

Deep Into Darkness with original concept by Sydney Doberstein, Laura Carly Miller, Blaine Anderson, and Fraser Larock. Directed by Sydney Doberstein and Laura Carly Miller. A Third Wheel Productions presentation at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until August 25. Visit for tickets and information.

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