Review: “Empire Travel Agency” guides adventurers on a New York odyssey
Is train 4 a place of mystery and danger? This is what you feel when you are walking around in a subway car, muttering code words in an anxious attempt to locate a gloomy Manitoban. When you’ve fled kidnappers, buskers, and more from a sinister cabal, there’s more to avoid than closing doors.
This underground adventure was but a burst of glorious inventiveness and appalling fun “Empire Travel Agency», The Woodshed Collective’s Theatrical Treasure Hunt via Paul Auster, Alain moore and Dan Brown. (Probably too many Dan Browns.) Lumberjack collective has already created an ambitious and site-specific theater (“Douze Ophélies”, “The man of confidence”, “The tenant”), but it is by far his most ambitious and most fully realized work.
After meeting your three traveling companions in an unpleasant corner of Manhattan’s financial district, a travel agent (the first of several) will hasten you. You will spend the next two and a half hours running from place to place, often jogging, sometimes in a moving vehicle. Your quest: to stop a substance known as Ambros from leaving New York City. Ambrose is the name of a flagship at the South Street Seaport, and the name of a neighbor bar, but here he seems to be referring to a strange drug, a sort of PCP with prophetic connotations.
Whether we owe it to Ambros or not, New York City has no shortage of interactive, in situ theater. There are luxury haunted houses like “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell”. There are shows in nightclubs, apartments with no elevators, and in the back seats of disused taxis. There is a company that recreates famous New York murder mysteries on the same streets the killers and victims walked. I even saw another play, that of Molly Rice Saints Visits, which used some of the same locations as “Empire Travel Agency”.
But what this play does, perhaps better than any play since Deborah Warner’s “Angel Project”, is use the city itself as a backdrop. Of course, the show included many spaces that had been transformed with humor and efficiency, but ordinary places, like this subway car, were often the most extraordinary, newly laden with perils and possibilities. Even pieces of the neighborhood not explicitly included in the adventure felt rich and eerie, like a narrow alley with Alexander Hamilton’s grave on one side and a discount shoe store on the other. Empire Travel Agency also has a nice way, at least in my limited experience, of turning four relative strangers into a unified, albeit at times klutzy, body with exhortations, taunts, and jokes. (Ben, Eric, Diego: We’ll always have Ordo. And thanks for switching over to the MetroCard.)
I won’t describe the show too precisely, partly because it’s a lot more fun to get on board ignoring its idiosyncrasies and partly because I had bought into the experience so much that very early on I gave up my bag. shoulder strap in order to carry out theft without incident. . My notes are not as complete as they could be.
It won’t hurt to praise director Teddy Bergman, who keeps the pace wonderfully frantic, at least until the mildly labored end. And the vast cast also deserves praise. Many performers are highly skilled improvisers, able to answer questions and concerns (see my purse someday?) Certainly a few of them struggled to play and drive at the same time. Or maybe their characters were bad conductors. What a commitment! In any case, hang in there.
The text, by Jason Gray Platt, is at times formidable and at times silly, and probably leans too much on competing conspiracy theories. God knows what kinds of conspiracies the Woodshed Collective has entered into to secure all of these locations and provide this entertainment for free. Unfortunately, only 12 people can catch the show each night – four at each of the three tee times – and all tickets have been booked well in advance of opening night. But don’t give up hope: There is a waiting list on the group’s Facebook page and a possibility to add dates.
This trip, says a travel agent, is “a journey through the mysteries of the city to help you find more.”