The world of immersive theater is continually expanding, but even as a relatively new form of entertainment it already often feels trapped inside its own box, retreading familiar ground.
“The Willows,” a new show in Los Angeles from the minds behind CreepLA, offers a memorable interactive experience and a full evening of entertainment for fans of the still-evolving genre – even if it doesn’t quite pave a new path.
Set in a 10,000 square-foot mansion in L.A.’s Mid-Wilshire district, “The Willows” tells the story of an upper-class family whose recent loss has sent them into a spiral of blame, anger, and — in at least one case — alcoholism. It’s heady stuff to become immersed in, but as guests gradually discover, there’s a paranormal bent to the story yet to be revealed.
Why has this eccentric clan invited a group of eighteen friends and acquaintances over for a dinner party? Is the event simply in remembrance of dear, departed son Jonathan, or is there something far more sinister at play?
Guests arrive via a chauffeured trip in a dark van, picked up on a nondescript streetcorner and delivered to the house in blindfolds, where they are greeted by the kindly but rigid butler, Lindsey. A cocktail hour ensues in the sitting room, where attendees are encouraged to meet and interact with the various denizens of the dwelling, learning their fictional backstories, and coming to know the half-dozen members of the Willows family– not to mention their hired help.
I was chosen to help the wistful maid retrieve dishes from the kitchen and set them on the table in the nearby dining room, where she swiftly began to break down from anxiety and exhaustion. It didn’t take long for this formal get-together to take a turn for the unorthodox.
Once Lindsey rings the dinner bell and the guests find their pre-assigned seats– helpfully indicated by placecards– the real show begins. Family matriarch Mrs. Willows sits at the head of the table and tells a rather chilling yarn about accompanying her father on a hunting trip as a child.
Subsequently, one of my favorite moments from the entire experience came during the chatter-filled dinner scene: As we continued to discover more about the Willows family, I spotted an eerie figure standing menacingly outside the dining room window, completely still. The mood was set.
Like most immersive theater productions, discovery and surprise play a huge part in this experience – so I’ll refrain from revealing too many more specific details of “The Willows” here. I can say that as the evening moves along, guests are split into smaller groups and have opportunities to explore other rooms in the cavernous house, eventually uncovering a creepy ulterior motive for the gathering.
Be forewarned: “The Willows” does not present a straightforward narrative, with only one path to follow. Freedom is not a luxury of this experience, as guests are told where to go and when to go there. And because the initial larger group is broken up, each individual attendee only experiences a fraction of the complete goings-on within the Willows’ home for the evening. The intent might be for patrons to come back multiple times to see it all, but the result feels frustratingly like skipping chapters of a novel. In the end, however, the entire audience does get the gist of the events that unfolded, even if they aren’t seen first-hand.
Without a doubt, the absolute strongest element in “The Willows” is its cast. Fully committed to their roles, the actors playing the relatives and servants help guests disappear into this curiously timeless world, where a family who acts and dresses like something out of a 1940s melodrama makes contemporary pop-culture references without ever breaking the fourth wall. At one point an actor, seamlessly and unquestionably in character, told me the soup served at dinner was vegan and gluten-free.
Throughout the experience, you’ll happily come to know each member of the Willows family, although by the end of the night you may not wish to know them anymore — and that’s entirely by design.
The setting is another featured star here. An ongoing plus of Los Angeles’ immersive theater scene is it’s always a treat just to enter one of the storied early-20th-century mansions these experiences often call home. During downtime between scenes, I often found myself enjoying the house’s architecture and decor which was, again, a mix of the old a new. There’s even an oddly out-of-place, yet somehow entirely appropriate, painting of MAD Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman hanging on the wall near the grand staircase.
But therein lies one of the biggest issues with The Willows: frequent and apparent downtime. While the show boasts a hearty 2.5-hour runtime from beginning to end, including transportation to and from the house, a substantial amount of that feels like filler. For example, my sub-group spent a good twenty minutes playing a parlor game similar to “Werewolf.”
At times, this seeming downtime does somewhat enhance the experience. A brief period spent in the younger and somewhat unhinged son Conrad’s room doing arts and crafts felt more naturally ingrained into the larger tale – especially when he exposed what was hiding behind the bathroom door. But segments like these more often felt like actors were stalling to wait for other story threads to catch up with them. Shaving off some time from the overall production’s length would tighten it up and make for a more satisfying evening.
The level of interaction was also frequently in question. Guests were plainly encouraged to interact with the characters – “the more you participate, the more you’ll get out of the experience” – yet when another guest repeatedly did exactly that, he was chastised and threatened with ejection from the house by Lindsey. The moment was again entirely in-character, but the risk of penalty was obviously authentic.
It became apparent that a number of the scenes in “The Willows” were meant to be purely scenes unto themselves, free from interplay with the guests, but differentiating these scenes from interactive ones was often too difficult in the moment.
A ticket to “The Willows” costs $125, which continues the recent progression of ever-increasing prices of LA’s immersive theater scene. Included with that price, guests do receive a full evening’s worth of entertainment as well as a series of tasty appetizers and some soup. It’s roughly what you’d pay for a full day at Disneyland, but for a shorter and vastly more intimate experience.
“The Willows” presents a creepy evening spent interacting with an undeniably terrific cast in a mysterious old house. While pacing issues and a rather anticlimactic ending made its story fall short for me, the overall experience was indeed a worthwhile entry into helping define the increasingly weird world of immersive theater, where the only thing to expect is the unexpected.
“The Willows” show is currently sold out for its entire run in May, but an extension is likely to come. Be sure to visit CreepLA’s official website for more information.