“Who are you and how did you die?” asks a cloaked woman with black lipstick, leading us into the backyard of a cozy blue house in Hollywood. Somehow, the question lightens the mood. It seems the hard part’s over. We’re dead. That wasn’t so bad.
“I’m Dan,” I reply. “Skydiving accident.” Each member of my group nods and smiles as we take turns revealing our grisly fates. Overdose. Murdered by a jealous girlfriend. Drowned in a puddle. What would seem from the outside like an otherworldly support group is anything but. Our deaths are but minor curiosities. We’re here to have some fun.
We’ve all signed up for a sort of spirit-realm novelty tour, in which we can freely indulge the deepest human of desires: to snoop. On our short trip, we are encouraged to eavesdrop on the living, provide a little haunting fun, and follow them into private and intimate moments.
On this particular night, our unwitting hauntees are Thomas and Blair, the owners of the house, as well as Cameron and Julia, another couple who have been invited over for snacks and board games. As the night rolls on, we learn of the deep entanglements between the four, through hushed conversation, passive aggression, and body language. We came for the voyeurism, but we’re staying for the juicy gossip.
This is the framework for The Shadow Space, created by Shelby Bond’s The Best Medicine Productions. The show is an immersive, sandbox-style murder mystery with escape room elements, including a final win or loss result. The goal is simple – solve a mystery within one hour, by uncovering the story, clues, and puzzles. With events happening simultaneously in different rooms, one must rely on his or her teammates to put the pieces together and make a final statement in the last few minutes.
What we do with our time is up to us, provided we follow a few rules. As formless spirits, the living cannot see or hear us, but we must do our best to stay out of their way. We may only manipulate objects that are psychically reactive. Thankfully, we are provided with a tool to measure for ourselves. We can move these objects, but only when the living are not looking. This means we cannot open doors unless they are opened for us. We’re friendly ghosts, not the type to pound on the walls or shatter dishes to traumatize our hosts. Still, we’re free to get into some mischief by irritating, confusing, or misdirecting the living–its so fun to flip off a light switch right after poor Thomas has just flipped it on. Sometimes, we can even influence their lives with the careful placement of an important letter or picture.
For the most part, these mechanics work incredibly well, and are perfectly explained within the context of the story. Though the explanation of the rules is a bit lengthy (and needs a little adjusting to over the course of the evening), The Shadow Space manages to invent a rather brilliant format that can and should be applied to any number of new stories. One gets the feeling that they are only scratching the surface of this excellent concept.
The acting is uniformly top-notch, and each character is distinct, consistent, and equally likable and interesting. DW McCann’s Thomas is strong-headed and intimidating but emits an underlying sadness. Aydrea Walden plays Julia, a talkative people-pleaser who talks a lot but is a natural leader for the group. Shelby Bond plays Cameron, a wound-up but loving boyfriend with a wonderful sense of human, and Chelsea Spirito’s Blair is the most dynamic and emotionally fragile of the bunch. Heightened dramatic moments are balanced out by surface-level small talk, which subtly nudges the ghosts to go exploring. The actors create an uncanny separation between their world and ours, never once acknowledging or reacting to the spirits in the house. It’s a wonderful effect, and within minutes, even the shyest of audience members will feel comfortable getting in close to intercept whispered conversations.
Our early-run show came with a few small gripes. The number of objects that the dead are allowed to manipulate is limited and mainly pertains to the narrative–it would have been nice to have more objects for those not working on a puzzle or eavesdropping on a conversation to use to haunt the living. The light switches and lamps are a fun mechanic–and more of that would be nice. Further, one of the game mechanics has the potential of locking guests out from solving puzzles, making it impossible to solve the final mystery with certainty. Specifically, if a ghost sets down an item, it can be picked up by a living soul and hidden away in a non-spirit-reactive drawer or pocket, essentially removing it from the gameboard. These items often contain clues needed later–and guests may try to use photographs or letters to move the narrative forward, unaware that they are losing valuable information when a character picks it up. So, our recommendation: if you find any clue, hang onto it, and don’t let the living put it away! Finally, the rooms can also get fairly crowded due to the large group size; although there is always plenty to do, some increased intimacy and breathing room is always appreciated.
Besides these minor complaints, The Shadow Space does a truly impressive job of balancing a very large number of variables in the show. The story is just complex enough to require some real effort from its audience, but it is not overwhelming. There is always something to do or see. Teamwork is heavily required but emerges very naturally; puzzle-solvers will gravitate toward the logical work, and more emotionally intelligent spirits will gather and contribute plenty of information by reading the actors carefully. It’s fascinating to experiment with the rules, and try to accomplish a task with wildly different strategies.
A skillful blend of unique game mechanics and entertaining story, The Shadow Space is an easy recommendation for just about anyone, and is a great introduction into both immersive theater and escape rooms. The experience is in no way scary; to the contrary, the whimsical reverse-ghost-tour framing device turns this classic murder mystery into something more delightful. If this is what death feels like, perhaps we can all rest a little easier.