For those of us who were enthralled by HBO’s recent adaptation of “The Last of Us,” the thought of fungi has induced new horrors of apocalyptic pandemic forecasting. Although the seedling ideas of Submersive Productions’ newest pandemic project originated in 2019, this unique imagining of humanity many ages post-outbreak couldn’t be more timely as our world transforms in the wake of our own very real pandemic. Submersive’s talented cohort of artists create original, site-specific immersive works where artists and audiences engage together at the intersection of histories, mythologies, and the immediate experience. Their work is highly collaborative, always devised, with no director or author, and is guided by a Core Team who is assembled for each project. This homogenized approach to creative funneling is clear in the rich, cohesive, clear design and performance.
Full of detail, this was a one-of-a-kind experience that can only be created with careful planning, immense world-building, and consummate skill.
Travel through time and space, from the historic Peale Center in downtown Baltimore, all the way to the far flung future where humanity has been forced to live in isolation, without the ability to breathe in the natural air or share physical proximity—all without computers! Through exploration of mycelial networks, the ravages of time, and the oddities or familiarities that resultantly develop in the human psyche, the audience is invited to “download” themselves into and explore the world of “Katalepsis.” This is the completely immersive and voluntarily interactive show now playing in the basement of a building almost as intriguing as the show held in its depths.
Technically, the plot is quite simple, but this is functional to the purpose of a truly immersive event, as each audience member has complete agency in their involvement with what they experience. Each of the “Creators” is in their isolation pod preparing for an event where they will present a tribute to the mysterious mycelial “Benefactors.” We began by heading down a set of steps (there is also an elevator and the space itself is accessible) to a holding room where we were invited to put on a pair of headphones. Our guide instructed us on the use of a small LED necklace: lights on means we are ready to interact. A nuclear fall-out style instructional video played. Humanity has been decimated with a virus from computers that forces them to isolate, unable to become physically close for fear of infection. Luckily, technological advancements have been made through symbiosis with mycelium. These fungal structures allow our consciousnesses to download into their web and explore the future as ghostly avatars, unaffected by the harsh new conditions. In the meantime, it also appears that the mycelium did some of their own evolving, and have become sentient benefactors (played on this night by Ursula Marcum and Jess Rassp), not necessarily benevolent creatures, that move with graceful and purposeful slowness. With the download complete, our guides leads us through to meet the creators. We are free to stay for as long or as little as we want with each.
Well-inhabited characters and razor sharp improvisatory skills were on display by the ensemble performing the evening’s experience. The cast rotates, with one room left empty to explore at your own pace, so the flavor of each performance evolves depending on when you attend. At my first stop, I met Strata, played by Lisi Stoessel. Strata was already holding court, festooned with all manner of different costumes, including the inserts to a brazier which had been repurposed as a sleeping mask. Strata’s room was bursting with all manner of fashion items, mirrors, and adoring notes from her fans. Although I could’ve stayed and watched her prepare all night for “the gala” as she called it, I instead volunteered myself to run an errand and visit the person Strata called “Weaver.”
Fashionable man-necklaces in hand, I moved through layers of mushroom-inspired set with ethereal music and pulsing light guiding my way. Weaver turned out to be the Timekeeper, played by Hannah Fenster, who was fastidiously guiding us through the multi-step ritual of preparing a tapestry—her life’s work. Timekeeper’s room was in stark opposition to Strata, neat and cozy and full of well prepared textiles. After spending some time nourishing myself through knot work, I delivered my message, and transcribed a response for Strata.
I had heard tell of, and heard, song coming from a pod with a creator called Phoenix. Played by Megan Livingston, this creator was yet again a completely new and fully realized character who was dedicated to song, music, and maybe a high tinge of stage fright. We talked about what constitutes a gift, shared connection with the group, and even one brave soul sang “twinkle twinkle little star.” By this point, the reason behind Phoenix’s anxiety was made clear as she donned a metallic hazmat suit, mask and goggles, and headed out into the fungal-forrest. It was there all three creators distantly reached for each other, and one by one presented their gifts to the Benefactors. Once the ceremony completed, I meandered underneath the canopy to a DJ booth that I had missed entirely whilst on my earlier mission. All evening I had taken the radio broadcast emitting as a pre-recorded track. To my delight, it turned out to be Francisco Benavides as DJ Conrad Formica, who did not stop his live stream doomsday prepping speech until he was completely overtaken by the Benefactors—literally. They stormed his barricaded booth to overtake his body and use him as a vessel to proclaim to all “A change is coming.”
The only part of the journey that felt a bit unclear to me was the empty creator room, which was for me that of Trustina Sabah’s character, Madame. I did pop my head in but felt almost like an intruder since there was no performer. I inquired after the performance, and upon reflection do enjoy the idea of being able to explore a room without having an actor. For those who may not want a high level of interaction, this concept brings a different style of engagement that can really work.
Since Submersive has their uniquely collaborative approach to show creation, I will shout out the other members of the team as listed in the program. The hard work was evident across the board from the Core Creative Team of Mika Nakano, Trustina Sabah, Susan Stroupe, and Glenn Ricci; the contributing artists Helen Garcia-Alton (lights) and Deana Brill (costumes), as well as the other performers Joshua Hne (Benefactor) and Bao Nguyen (DJ Siren). Structure and stability for the audience was handled expertly by Production Manager Tessara Morgan and Show Runners Griffin DeLisle, Debra Lenik, and Mara Falbo-Wild. Pre-production support by Technical Director Tyler Brust, Workshop Leader Tara Cariaso, and Intern Chloe Azcuy were assuredly a recipe for success for this cohort.
Becoming a part of a piece of live theatre is one of the truly special moments of life. To feel safe and supported enough to engage and take ownership of a piece of art creates pure catharsis. The team who created “Katalepsis” have poured deep thought into a world with stunning results. Full of detail, this was a one-of-a-kind experience that can only be created with careful planning, immense world-building, and consummate skill.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Katalepsis” runs through April 30, 2023 at The Peale Center, 225 Holliday St, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets can be found here. Masks are required for the performance.