ESCHATON: BEHIND THE VELVET DOOR
I am given a password to type into a menu bar on my computer. The word is “velvet.” While pondering what this password could mean for the experience I am about to witness, I am led into a new Zoom breakout room. I am not the first. I find myself in a garish boudoir. It is dimly lit. There are about a dozen people here. Voyeurs. Watching the young woman named Katja on the couch. Katja is scantily and provocatively clad. She is wearing a feathered boa and pasties. She stretches catlike on the divan. She plays a song on a gramophone next to the couch. If she notices that she is being watched, she doesn’t let on. Instead, she proceeds to light a cigarette in a long holder. She places the lit cigarette in between her bare toes as she lies on her stomach and leans forward to adjust the gramophone.
But just then, Katja bends over backward to take a puff from the cigarette, still ensconced between her toes. Her long hair brushes the small of her back. I am transfixed. So are the other participants, judging by the slack-jawed expressions on their faces. The host of the party enters the Zoom chat and leaves four more passwords for us to use when we desire. I find myself torn between wanting to stay to see what will happen next and leaving this place for the next adventure.
WILKOMMEN, BIENVENUE, WELCOME
Billed as “your new nightlife,” Eschaton is a virtual nightclub fashioned to tide over all of those frustrated clubgoers currently sidelined from the Sunset Strip due to the coronavirus. Created by Brittany Blum and Tessa Whitehead in collaboration with Taylor Myers, Eschaton is a one-hour experience that launches from the comfort of your own PC, iPad, or mobile device. Currently in beta testing, Eschaton will perform every Saturday night at 7pm, and the price of admission is a mere $10.
The format for Eschaton is deceptively simple. Participants click a link at the designated time and, after watching a brief introductory video, are given a choice of four doors. Choosing a door leads participants into an experience taking place in a Zoom “breakout room.” Experiences range from magic to dance to yoga to contortionism to cooking shrimp dumplings (don’t ask). Participants can opt to stay within the breakout room and watch what transpires for as long as they want, or they can move to a second breakout room and a second experience. Once in the second room, they can choose to move to a third room or a fourth or a fifth. Eschaton lasts for sixty minutes and, at the end of the proceedings, participants watch a closing video before they are duly cyber-escorted from the premises.
CONTENT WARNING: There are moments of brief nudity and semi-nudity, as well as erotic and adult themes. There is no violence, but some may be triggered by moments of light sado-masochism. Eschaton is for guests 18 and above.
A NIGHT AT THE IMAC
Eschaton is an unusual bird and an utterly unique experience. Participants are only given sixty minutes to explore dozens of rooms, and therein lies the conflict. Ultimately the experience is about choice and FOMO. Each room is so whimsical and bizarre, I found myself in inner turmoil as I struggled with whether to stay and watch the pole dancer, risking missing out on the strange rat-man who clothed himself in a suit and suspenders while a paper mache’ head looked on. Sure, I could watch the man in the basement juggle wrenches and screwdrivers, but I would risk missing out on the sad violinist who bemoaned being constantly catcalled. Who knew there was so much fun to be had within the confines of the Zoom platform?
And then there are the hidden puzzles. I don’t want to give anything away, but amidst an overall setting of chaos and meaninglessness, there is in fact an underlying escape room-type experience to be had. If you listen closely to the introductory video and to the banter provided by several of the characters, you can figure out a password to be entered into the menu bar that will open up what would otherwise be the “meat” of an immersive experience. There is an underlying story. There are puzzles to be solved and rewards to be had. But, the puzzles and the story are just a side quest here. They are irrelevant to the utter chaos, which seems to be the point. It is a story about nothing, after all.
YOU SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND, BABY, RIGHT ROUND
What the creators of Eschaton have done with the Zoom platform is truly remarkable. They have, in effect, repurposed Zoom into a maze-making tool. For those unfamiliar with the Zoom platform (and I wish to inform these people that there is, in fact, a coronavirus pandemic attacking the country), Zoom allows the host of the virtual chat program to place participants in individual chat rooms unconnected with the original room. In effect, this ability allows separate meetings to occur. What Eschaton has done is utilize a custom third-party integration platform to allow users to enter passwords into a menu bar. These passwords will then automatically give users admission to dozens of individual breakout rooms and the strange people contained within. It is such a simple conceit and yet the experiential freedom it gives can’t be understated.
Gone is the necessity to interact with a host. Instead the user experience is that of being a fly on the wall, with complete freedom to travel where one wishes. The user doesn’t need to gain permission to leave a room or enter another. The user merely enters a password and alakazam the portal opens to another dimension. The effect is seamless and instant (tempered perhaps by the speed of one’s wi-fi). The user can be anonymous and choose to block their camera but, more often than not, participants opt to let their freak flag fly. Watching the reactions of the other Eschaton clubgoers to the truly weird and truly out-there goings on adds to the festive atmosphere.
There were no one-on-one interactions. Unlike immersive experiences like Sleep No More, there was no interaction between the actors and the participants. You could write whatever you wanted into the chat, but you could simply not request Fiona the violinist play “Freebird” or to inform Katja that even with your feet, second-hand smoking kills. The chat plays the role of interacting with guests and/or receiving the next batch of room passwords from an anonymous and ever-present host.
WHAT IS LOVE? BABY, DON’T HURT ME.
If you come to Eschaton expecting a meaningful relationship instead of a quickie one-night stand, you’ve mistakenly swiped right on this adventure. It’s not you, it’s Eschaton. Eschaton makes no bones about being about anything other than finding the next bizarre thing waiting around the corner. Sure you can stay with one Mr. or Mrs. Right, but that’s really not the point here. There are literally dozens of rooms filled with more than enough wacko content to fill several hours, let alone a mere sixty minutes.
During my hour (which seemed like a lot more due to everything that was jam-packed into it), I lived a lifetime. I witnessed a talented, red-headed 1940s lounge singer in the mirror box; a strange man who danced in front of a curtain while proclaiming he owned my dignity and my choices; a guy balancing screwdrivers and wrenches while tuning a very long guitar in the boiler room; a cook making shrimp dumplings to the musical stylings of ELO; a male stripper in his underwear who peeled an orange, bringing to mind a very sexy interpretation of Marlon Brando’s Godfather death scene (spoiler); two contortionists; a pole dancer; a very limber yoga instructor; a depressed and sexually harassed violinist; a drunk rat getting dressed; and a room entitled “ACID,” which turned my screen into a psychedelic romp, mimicking a drug trip.
Of course, this review would be incomplete without at least mentioning the puzzle-based portion. I discovered the puzzle late in the evening and I am embarrassed to admit that I was unable to finish it. The clock ran out on my attempt to delve deeper into Eschaton’s mysteries. I would like to say this was a flaw in the game design. But it probably wasn’t. It was probably me.
WHAT HAPPENS IN ESCHATON STAYS IN ESCHATON
After the evening faded into memory and the control of my computer was returned to me, I reminisced about what had just happened. Several immediate standouts came to mind. Contortionist Katja, played with disinterested aloofness by the burlesque dancer Lilin, was fascinating to watch, even when she was simply turning on a record player. The sad but talented violinist Fiona, played by Isabel Hagen, regaled us with tales of sexual harassment in between virtuoso displays. Other highlights included energetic pole dancer Alethea Austin, a scantily clad male dancer who peeled oranges as he pranced in his underwear, and a strange man emerging from behind a curtain who proclaimed he owned all of our choices.
The immersive theatrical space is constantly reinventing itself and coming up with new ideas and concepts. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Eschaton has repurposed the Zoom meeting platform and has come up with something unique. Eschaton is merely a series of vignettes. It doesn’t mean anything profound and doesn’t attempt to be anything more than what it is: a silly and random parade of strangeness. It’s immersive speed-dating that one can explore from the safety and comfort of their virus-free homes. And at a mere $10, it is unlikely you can buy more entertainment for anywhere close to this price.