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Title: The Tape Escape

Co-created by: Vanessa Smythe, Mitchell Cushman and Nick Bottomley

Genre: Escape room

Company: Outside the March

Venue: 480 Bloor St. W.

City: Toronto

Year: Runs to Aug. 4


3 out of 4 stars

Can escape rooms be theatre?

Recently, for my first time as a theatre critic, I was invited to review one: The Tape Escape, which is actually three escape room-style “experiences” – puzzles and scavenger hunts solved collectively and connected by a loose narrative – set in a video rental store in Toronto.

Outside the March, an acclaimed theatre company committed to exploring new forms of immersive theatre, is behind the project, and its three co-creators are actor and writer Vanessa Smythe, director Mitchell Cushman and projection designer and programmer Nick Bottomley.

The immediate and chief appeal of The Tape Escape is the nostalgic production design by Anahita Dehbonehie and Nick Blais. The two have been given free rein to a recently shuttered video store on Toronto’s Bloor Street West (the late, lamented Queen Video) that was long a holdout in our streaming, on-demand times.

The immediate and chief appeal of The Tape Escape is the nostalgic production design.Neil Silcox/Handout

It’s been resurrected in glorious detail as it might have looked in 1999, the year The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and Fight Club came out in cinemas and that film critic Brian Raftery recently canonized in his book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.

With a working Nintendo with a Super Mario Bros 3 in the lobby, the whole package definitely seemed aimed at my generation – that older millennial, younger Generation X liminal cohort sometimes irritatingly dubbed Xennials.

None of the movies displayed on the shelves are older than 1999 – and they’re all available only in the VHS format. Actually, that’s not entirely true: A series of Betamax cassettes of two-dimensional Marvel cartoons from long before the company’s live-action ones monopolized the movie business are hidden in the basement and play a role in one of the puzzles.

The most straightforwardly theatrical element in The Tape Escape are vignettes that take place before your team begins an “experience," co-written with and performed by one the eight actors who play “clerks” who guide you through the puzzles. These are staged at random, so you can’t be guaranteed which one(s) you’ll see.

The first I witnessed seemed designed to add some complexity to the nostalgic atmosphere as a black clerk named Devon (Danté Prince) dealt with some very 1990s racial micro-aggressions over the phone from a customer who had rented Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The other vignette I caught involved a white clerk named Chad (Nick Porteous) rehearsing his bad stand-up routine; that’s overdone territory. But Chad later became my group’s guide on a puzzle – and Porteous’s improvised, quick-witted quips along the way and gentle roasting of our mistakes made the experience much more fun. (The “clerk” who guided us through our other journey didn’t really seem to be playing a character.)

Two of the escape experiences on offer are for four participants at a time (A Grown Up’s Guide to Flying; Yesterday’s Heroes) and my groups successfully solved them both. The third, Love Without Late Fees, is for groups of eight and I didn’t try it.

A Grown Up’s Guide to Flying involves a little play-acting on the participants’ part; we’re supposed to imagine we are part of a young child’s birthday scavenger hunt organized by his older brother, who talks to us in home videos scattered along the way. These videos, made to look like they have degraded, made spooky references to oily shadows and featured clips from a creepy old silent film of Peter Pan.

This is all explained, though not in a particularly satisfying way, if you make it to the end. Perhaps I was put off because the final puzzle here required tasting and smelling mystery substances; while there are those surely nostalgic for artificial flavours of children’s candy and scratch-and-sniff cards, this just grossed me out.

A Grown Up’s Guide to Flying involves a little play-acting on the participants’ part, with creepy silent film clips and references to oily shadows.Neil Silcox/Handout

I’d more highly recommend Yesterday’s Heroes. The conceit of this scavenger hunt is that the video rental shop burned down in 1999 and all the clerks perished in the fire. Through nifty animations and a trip into a locked vault in the basement, it eventually became clear that we weren’t just solving a puzzle, but going back in time to save the store from destruction.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to confidently rate The Tape Escape because my experience in that area of entertainment is limited. There are other escape rooms in Toronto that have artistic ambitions and employ actors – such as the ones in Casa Loma – that I’ve never reviewed.

For those who prefer more purely theatrical experiences, as I do, Outside the March is producing U.S. playwright Annie Baker’s wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick in the fall – a theatrical requiem for film that I first saw in an old, shuttered cinema in Victoria.

It’s fascinating how theatre companies continue to creatively colonize empty buildings left behind by other forms of entertainment, and in order to memorialize these former artistic rivals. I’m sure somebody will stage a play in a living room based around Netflix nostalgia in 20 years time. Theatre is the cockroach of the arts; it’ll be around until everything else human is gone.

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