Review by Joe De Rosa
You walk into the lobby of the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place and gaze at the once familiar landscape, a theater lobby transformed, a place you know well but you’ve never seen quite like this before. Here people in casual Friday night attire mingle with be-costumed wood elves and satyrs. Friends out for a night at the theater rub elbows with fairies, wizards, and maidens…
Part play, part role play game, part Gamiotics interactive audience experience, mixed together with a whole lot of improv, David Allen Greener Law (DAGL from here on), and Sarah Davis’s The Twenty-Sided Tavern rolls a Natural Twenty. It is “Ale! And well met!” And that all means it’s barrels of laughs, flat-out fun.
You enter the theater and lay your eyes on a stage tavern with three panels of screens showing a map of the Isle of Hale and words of wisdom to help you on your way. You open your playbill to discover whether you’re a Red Fighter, Blue Mage, or Green Rogue.
As a concept, there’s plenty to love about The Twenty-Sided Tavern, but there’s also plenty that can go wrong. The show is a bit of a complex machine with more moving parts than the traditional theater experience, but this gives The TST high-wire act energy and brings people in. Starting before the play begins, the audience makes a series of choices that dictate key elements of the quest. As members of their respective teams, they select the roles the actors will play. On this occasion, Carlina Parker played Jet the roller derby Red Fighter, Jack Corcoran played Dew the unlicensed therapist Blue Mage, and Madelyn Murphy played Katya the cat-like Green Rogue.
Your quest begins in the Twenty-Sided Tavern. Fred the barkeep, with his bright red beard, introduces you to Bean the priest, who sends you on your perilous journey. You are not alone. Jet, Dew, Katya, and a few hundred other people around you with phones at the ready will be there to help fight off bandits, solve riddles, and overcome the many challenges you’ll face on the road ahead.
Slick, tech-savvy, and clever, The Twenty-Sided Tavern generates a healthy dose of audience energy, fueled by the skillful direction of DAGL and Davis. DAGL’s boundless excitement and improv skill make him a force of nature on stage. He’s all over the theater, playing every supporting role in the quest, from Fred the Barkeep at the beginning to the Greasy Ice Squirrel (adjectives and nouns supplied by the audience to generate this cutely terrifying monster) at the end. All the while, Davis shrewdly guides the game, managing the technical pieces and throwing in clever comments along the way. There are plenty of chances for the whole thing to spin out of control, but DAGL and Davis’s brilliant quest design melds their love for Dungeons and Dragons and stage comedy and brilliantly taps the devotion of the audience.
You are guided by Jet, Dew, and Katya to an ominous, strange castle where a new set of challenges await.
The Twenty-Sided Tavern is clearly a labor of love. DAGL and Davis, with help from scenic and costume designer Katie McGeorge, have built a theater experience that demands they and their talented cast throw themselves into a show that will be different every night. They can’t just win the audience’s attention, they need to win its participation. A tall order, but the cast is more than up to the challenge. Carlina Parker is hilarious as Jet the roller derby fighter–skate, skate, skate. Corcoran plays Dew the self-indulgent, unlicensed therapist rogue to perfection. And Murphy threatens to steal the show with her cat-like, mischievous, agile, playfully wonderful performance as Katya.
To win this quest, you must defeat the ultimate foe, a force of havoc that threatens to destroy the very community that brings us together. Can you win this battle? Can you defeat this impossible foe?
At heart, Dungeons and Dragons is as much about the people you play with as it is about the game, and building a community of audience and cast for a night is The Twenty-Sided Tavern’s true quest. But the cast’s improv talent, excitement, and love for D&D are contagious, so it all works. I’ll see this show again, but next time I’ll leave my phone in my pocket. I don’t want to miss a moment of DAGL, Davis, Parker, Corcoran, and Murphy creating a community for a night by sharing the game they love.
Ale! And well met!
The Twenty-Sided Tavern runs through January 15th at the Broadway Playhouse Theater. Team Turkey (here reviewed) performs until December 5th, and then Team Tinsel takes over for the rest of the run. For tickets and info visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.