Under the Big Top: Atlas
Before now, I haven’t had the opportunity to see a show from the Speakeasy Society. I have heard wonderful things about their Kansas series, reviewed for Media Geeks by Lacey (start here). When I heard they were starting a new series, and teaming up with Two Bit Circus, I jumped at the chance to see what they came up with.
I love visiting Two Bit Circus, but their only feature I make special trips for is the evolving series of hidden puzzles around the facility. Visible to all, but seen by few, these puzzles reveal bits of information for the “Tent Pole Society.” This secret organization was a vague concept until now. The Speakeasy Society uses it as part of a larger story involving the mysterious circumstances around a 1928 flood that washed away a real (wink wink) circus on the land where Two Bit was built. This flood, and the performers of that doomed circus, are the center of a new series called “Under the Big Top,” to be revealed in 4 installments. They are interconnected, but not sequential, so you can see any with no prior knowledge. The first part is subtitled “Atlas.”
Slipping down a dim hallway, the neon and noise immediately recede. A letter from Dr. Xanders, who was using time jumps to investigate the flood, reveals that she’s missing and you are following up. With subtle visual cues, the atmosphere is already calmer than the digital cacophony 100 feet away. At the signal, you enter a door…and 1928. From here, audiences are fully in the past, meeting a circus performer named Kittie Fletcher, who is living her last night on earth, though she doesn’t know it. You can’t tip her off, so you do the best you can to help her prepare for the show and listen to her sad story.
To Be or Not To Be…Immersive
Although audience members perform small tasks, and Kittie asks a few (almost rhetorical) questions, the show is not immersive in the way that the term has come to be known. Reviewing the official description, the word “immersive” is never mentioned. This was an assumption I’d made based on the locale and the Speakeasy Society’s other works. It’s unfair to judge “Atlas” based on false assumptions that it will be something it never claims. Audiences should know it’s mostly a traditional performance in an intimate setting. One performer and one or two people listening to her.
The actress (Dasha Kittredge on the night I was there, Claire Chapelli on other nights) speaks directly to the audience. They are in the room with her, in 1928, but they are an outlet for her story and don’t have any agency. Her performance has a wide range of emotions and includes several other people in her life. Sometimes her voice is very soft and hard to hear, so I found myself leaning forward to make sure I picked up every piece of it. There is confusion, bewilderment, and sadness, but it’s not bleak. I drew a hopeful conclusion using a parallel from her story that I think was intentional. I wonder if others felt this conclusion was strongly implied to all, or if it was my own take on it.
Although the theatrical performance is the centerpiece of “Atlas,” the “Under the Big Top” series doesn’t end there. After the show, you learn about additional content to be investigated at your leisure. The other shows in the series will each provide more clues to the overarching mystery of the 1928 circus. Pursuing each of the 4 shows’ additional material will provide access to a fifth piece of the narrative, one that promises to conclude the series and tie pieces together.
Not only that, but there are also “historical” accounts of the 1928 circus flood in a couple locations at Two Bit Circus. Reading these gives you more of the backstory that the Speakeasy Society is expanding upon. So your adventure “Under the Big Top” has at least three components–the modern venue, the performers in 1928, and the internet. These feel easily manageable and not like a sprawling Alternate Reality Game that has you running all over to collect information.
Step Right Up
“Under the Big Top” is off to a promising start. The theme of a romanticized old-timey circus is alluring, the mysteries are intriguing, and the variety of interactions are engaging. The set is detailed, and believable, despite being one wall away from 2019. The other spectator with me praised it by saying, “they didn’t make it hard to suspend disbelief.” The performance we saw was heartfelt and sympathetic. Although I didn’t experience a big ‘wow’ moment with “Atlas,” there is a solid foundation for something grand. I’m excited to stay “Under the Big Top” until everything is revealed.
“Under the Big Top: Atlas” is ongoing on Sundays 6pm – 10pm, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 7pm – 11pm. The running time is about 30 minutes, and it takes place at Two Bit Circus: 634 Mateo St., Los Angeles, CA 90021. Tickets are $70 for either either 1 or two audience members, so it’s only $35 if you take a friend! For more information or to buy tickets, visit their website here.