Captain Jackson is mid-way through his career, jaded, with a wry sense of humor, but he’s not cracking jokes now. It’s dark where he sits in the cockpit, so dark he can’t see a thing, not the clock, not the controls, not the sky outside, and he’s in a full, complex panic. But his rising hysteria is cut abruptly and replaced by…music? That is music I can hear. It’s weeks, maybe months in the past, and I hear Jackson and his new co-pilot Parker dancing to Ed Sheeran, of all things. They’re horsing around with each other. It feels like a natural friendship is developing, almost sweet, but then the music audio cuts again.
CUT: I’m glad I crashed the plane, Parker says.
Over the course of the experience, I feel alternately that I have no agency to change these events – merely forced to listen to a series of horrible memories unfurling – and that I can make a choice that affects the outcome of this disaster, but I’m not sure what that is.
CUT: Jackson is screaming now, begging me for help.
Now I understand. Of course, Parker is glad he crashed the plane. The trauma he experienced at Jackson’s hands makes him feel as if he has no other recourse to give himself justice. I don’t know that I agree with his decision, but there’s nothing I can do but comfort him now that he’s trapped in this mid-air Limbo. He asks me if he should let Jackson go from his prison in the dark cockpit; throughout the audio cuts and Jackson continues to scream periodically as the walls physically close in on him. I tell him he needs to let both Jackson and himself go, it’s time to fly free. Eventually, he does. I tell him he’s done the right thing, for himself if not for Jackson, who hardly deserves relief.
CUT: No one will believe you against me, Jackson says. The only thing that records audio up here is the Black Box.
Candle House Collective’s strength has always lain in the cohesiveness of their storytelling. The choice to put out six disparate stories for Under the Bed is a bold one, pulling participants away from the long-form, interwoven narratives that made prior experiences like Moonlight Serenade and Crossed Wires so successful. While Black Box is a difficult experience to live through thematically, it is a strong entry that exemplifies the beautifully bleak content and strong performances the group has come to be known for. Themes of loss and terror have seamlessly mixed in with a kind of signature whimsy throughout Candle House’s experiences – the very existence of the company reinforces the idea that truly anything is possible within the reach of your mind.
CUT: Parker again, telling me he’s keeping Jackson here, wherever here is.
Creator Evan Neiden’s talent for the unique genre of telephone immersive narrative is again on point here, as he tells a difficult story about ambition, assault, and justice. Director John Ertman lays out Neiden’s story, guiding performers Mat Benson as Jackson and Vincent D’Avanzo as Parker into natural, impressive performances. Benson, in particular, is tremendous; at times I find myself pitying a man who is clearly struggling with his guilt, only to be nudged into a rage because of what he’s done. D’Avanzo alternately plays Parker with a disconnected passion that slowly comes back to him throughout the course of the call, culminating in a deep sadness that continues to resonate with me long after the line goes dead.
CUT: There’s no “million miles to go,” for most people, Parker says.
Black Box is dark material, and certainly not for everyone, but it’s a powerfully produced and executed experience. Neiden and Ertman work together expertly to craft a story that, while not likely to have happened specifically to a given participant, still resonates on a personal level with the listener. It’s the kind of story that needs telling, no matter how uncomfortable, and Candle House has found a truly innovative way to do so. In a program like Under the Bed, where some stories don’t quite hit the mark as well as others, Black Box stands out on virtue of its delivery and content. It’s riveting, disconcerting, and a naked look at sexual violence that non-horror immersive theater often shies away from. Black Box is a series of harrowing last words from a victim and his abuser, culminating in a kind of tragic triumph; it’s a uneasy call that’s well worth taking.