It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m sipping coffee as I dial in, clicking on the “Open Zoom” link that I’ve become so familiar with these past two months. When BJ answers, the head of RFIDirect’s IT and Security is as energetic and cheerful as ever, letting me know that after the recent hack, the company is requiring a personal security check for each employee, just to make sure we’re who we say we are. He asks if I’m familiar with a CAPTCHA shortly before the familiar grid of the common online verification test appears onscreen.
“Can you tell me which of the squares contain bugs?” BJ asks.
I stare at the grid. It’s full of computer code.
“I’m, uh… I’m not really a coder,” I say, confused.
“I’m just messing with you, Tim,” BJ laughs. “That’s just a little IT humor!”
Quaranteam is the latest immersive production from Annie Lesser’s ABC Interactive (Apartment 8, Covell, Infinitely Dinner Society) and the first of Lesser’s projects to be conducted remotely. Taking place over the course of six weeks, the experience is an ARG of sorts, with most interactions between actors and participants happening on Zoom and Slack. When buying their ticket, participants have a variety of price levels to choose from, each offering more opportunities for interaction with the highest levels actually playing a key part in moving the show’s narrative forward.
In Quaranteam, you’re an employee of RFIDirect, a small Denver-based company specializing in consumer-facing RFID technology, the emerging tech seen most frequently at conventions, concerts and other mass gatherings of people—the very things hit hardest by the current global pandemic. With the foundation of their business on hold for possibly years, RFIDirect must figure out a new pandemic-friendly use for the technology quickly, or else be forced to shut down permanently in six weeks when their current funding runs out. Whether they succeed or not is largely up to you and your fellow employees.
That’s an important point. For Quaranteam to work, the participants need to be willing to perform the tasks asked of them as it really does seem like saving the company is dependent on their ideas. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach—a lot of immersive shows give their attendees agency over the show’s direction and ending—it feels different when it’s a grounded-in-reality show like Quaranteam. In a show that’s more removed from real life, asking its audience to solve problems within the storyline is fun. After all, most of us don’t know what it’s like to be a spy, vampire, or time traveler, so being asked to do work that feels authentic to those roles adds to the escape from reality. But a lot of us have worked office jobs before, so solving problems faced by a struggling tech company doesn’t always feel like fun. At times, it feels like an actual job.
Yet, this is obviously not a typical company. Each Friday, the current chapter of Quaranteam culminates in a company-wide Zoom meeting in which each of RFIDirect’s teams (Sales, R&D, Publicity and IT) gives an update, sharing the work and ideas generated by their team members and almost always devolving into some sort of drama. This is where Quaranteam is at its strongest. The aforementioned security check came about after the company was hacked and all of the projects they had in development were leaked to the public, resulting in claims that the company was creating spy technology for the Chinese government. I would have liked to see some more fallout from this, particularly after learning whose bad security practices let the hackers in, but there’s no doubt it shook things up in a surprising way and propelled Quaranteam’s narrative forward.
In a later meeting, in what’s arguably the show’s strongest episode, the team leaders find themselves acting crazy and doing some soul-searching (in some cases sans pants) when it’s discovered that the sourdough starters they had used for that week’s company-bonding baking project were hallucinogenic. At moments like these, Quaranteam plays like an interactive episode of The Office, where normal, everyday office activities get pushed in ridiculous directions, driving the show to new levels of humor and character development.
Unfortunately, though, that’s only a part of Quaranteam, the rest of the experience consists of Slack conversations and team assignments, and your mileage will likely vary on how engaging you find them.
Lesser has said she was partially inspired to create Quaranteam after reading about how some office workers who were now working from home had started downloading background tracks of office noises to help their workdays feel a little more normal. Her idea was to create an immersive experience that would bring an element of familiarity and normalcy that’s currently lacking from people’s lives while also creating something fun that would allow them a weekly escape. It’s an interesting experiment and not one without merit, but for it to work, it really does need to provide something that’s missing.
When I was about halfway through Quaranteam, it occurred to me that I absolutely would have loved it ten years ago. In 2010, we were in the midst of the Great Recession and I’d been unemployed for a year. For someone who was—much as I was at the time—questioning their skills, capability and overall value as an employee at the time, Quaranteam would be remarkably affirming and an escape from the stress and uncertainty of unemployment. With unemployment again at record levels, and with stress and uncertainly running rampant, perhaps Lesser is on to something with Quaranteam.
Yet, as someone who’s currently employed and actually working from home, I didn’t find it to be the escape that I wanted. Certainly, the cast isn’t the problem. RFIDirect’s management team is comprised of immersive stalwarts from both coasts. John Patrick Daly (Wood Boy Dog Fish) is a standout as Ted Cruise, the slightly too eager head of Accounts. Jason Rosario (Definition of Man) as BJ attacks his role with a quick-cut energy and a rock star attitude perfect for a young IT whiz. You can practically taste the energy drinks through your laptop screen whenever he speaks up. Lesser herself plays Sue Hall, RFIDirect’s head of HR, and instills the highly organized role with a wistful fragility that was compelling.
I found myself most frequently interacting with RFIDirect’s CEO Duncan Donner, who’s brought to life by Halt and Catch Fire’s J. Elijah Cho. Duncan begins Quaranteam as arguably the most tightly wound and corporate of the bunch, but quickly spirals into drunken abandon when it’s revealed that the company’s financial troubles have forced him to move back in with his parents. Cho handles Duncan’s fall with anarchic glee, at one point secretly DMing select participants a drinking game to play during that week’s Zoom meeting. We’re likely supposed to push him to get help, but I’ll admit that I played the role of enabler. Drunk Duncan was just way more fun than responsible CEO Duncan.
The fact that each of Quaranteam’s Zoom meetings ends with a happy hour seems strangely appropriate as the show itself feels a bit to me like a company happy hour. Much like post-work drinks with your coworkers, Quaranteam is certainly fun at times and even surprising at moments, with people saying or doing things that you know are going to come back to haunt them. But for much of the time, in spite of the free-flowing drinks and conversation, it still feels an awful lot like work. Over its six weeks, Quaranteam offers occasional laughs, frequent interaction, a colorful cast of characters and, for better or worse, moments that accurately recreate the feel of working for a small company during a challenging time. The show succeeds at what it sets out to do, even to the point of resulting in a final product that may actually be marketable. In these strange, unprecedented times, a grounded experience like this might very well be a welcome distraction to some. But those of us who are looking for less everyday escapes probably need not apply.