The following article was co-written with Taylor Winters.
A narrow alleyway awaits. Crooked little buildings all huddled together, a little too close – almost as if they are trying to get far away from something. I begin walking down the brick pathway and find an odd hole with words scratched next to it: All Lovers Shall Perish. I look through the peephole and see the shadows of two bodies, a male and a female hanging from a knotted rope above. I move on quickly, past another building, the Emotional Correctional Facility. I peek inside, into a room a little too white and a little too clean compared to the dirty alley outside. A man, dressed in all black with his face covered, waits inside next to a crooked white slab of nondescript metal in the center. Not wanting to be the next in his doctor’s chair, I keep going, past one more alley, to a cage swinging back and forth with a long-haired man trapped inside.
Cages is revolutionary. Where immersive theater changed the way our hearts and minds connect to traditional theater, Cages is doing the same for our ears and eyes. The creation of Woolf and the Wondershow (CJ Baran and Benjamin Romans), this show combines 360-degree sound technology (L-ISA) with intricately designed projection mapping and live actors in an experience where guests’ eyes will betray them in the most magical way possible. But Cages is so much more than a musical performance on a stage – it’s also an immersive experience during the pre-show and intermission, with some small offerings to further include participants in the world of the story. Together, these two elements create the closest thing to seeing a graphic novel come alive with live music, and a narrative so evocative that it will unlock the cage of anyone’s heart.
Written and directed by David Richardson, Romans and Baran, the actual performance section of Cages is a modern tale about the evocative power of music, set against the backdrop of Anhedonia, a town where emotion is outlawed, and everyone’s hearts are locked up behind bars. Those found to be breaking the law, experiencing emotions, or disobeying the orders of the government are executed by hanging. The narrative focuses on the boy with the red heart, Woolf (played by creator CJ Baran), and his chance encounter with Madeline (Allison Harvard). We’d hate to spoil any more than that.
Small groups enter from their wait in the parking lot into a cluttered library piled sky-high with books, lab equipment, and specimens of undetermined origins. A woman (Sophie Cooper), silently intense, appears from behind a hidden doorway and leads guests into the lobby proper. In the dim lighting of the lobby, a cocktail bar reaches the ceiling, towering over awe-struck guests. The rain sound effects and moody music betray the nice Los Angeles weather; a video of gloomy Anhedonia is projected on the bar’s back.
Enter further and guests can find a glimpse of Woolf’s equations and a stunning, life-sized tree which becomes even more poignant after the musical’s completion. A beautiful symbol of Cages, the tree stands crooked and alone, revealing that life is possible even surrounded by concrete. And for those here for the bar, the tree also conceals a hidden tap for absinthe. The initial library and corresponding décor of the main bar serve as the perfect transition, ensuring guests feel part of Anhedonia.
With a bar in the front and another by the tree, bartenders serve elaborate, specialty cocktails that offer a taste of forbidden emotions – Love (Vulnerable and Blind to Consequence), a light and bubbly drink with vodka, rose, strawberry, almond, citrus and champagne; Lust (Too Close to the Sun), a complex mix of tequila, pear eau de vie, Matcha and Sencha teas, lime, chartreuse, nigori sake, pineapple and absinthe; Anger (Your Darkest Demon), a dark concoction of bourbon, rye, cognac, cinnamon, Amari, and angostura; and finally Sadness (The Weight of Her Tears), with gin, dry vermouths, sherry, saline, and ashen herb “mascara.” These four cocktails give guests a delicious introduction to Anhedonia and foreshadow elements of the narrative to come.
The hallway from the lobby to the theater – open 10 minutes before the show begins, and during intermission – is rife with hidden secrets and ephemeral moments available only to those willing to seek them out. Here, guests can look through a peephole marked with All Lovers Shall Perish graffiti, get a number on their wrist to be matched with a future mate, or watch as an Anhedonia resident gets their memory and emotions wiped from their consciousness. These small, immersive scenes play out mainly in the alleyway, so make sure to spend your time here during the intermission. But for the first to find the woman from the Chemist’s Library, she may show you a story from her favorite book: The Boy with the Red Heart. While audience agency remains low in this sandbox-style immersive intermission, its inclusion helps to keep guests in the world of Cages, and offers a preview and clues for the narrative to come.
While immersive interactions were on the lighter side during the preview performances, they were toned down to focus on the show and ambiance. Manager Joey Bybee ensures us that, now that the aesthetic has been achieved (to phenomenal effect), the immersive elements will be increased as the show opens to the public, providing more secrets, more narrative, and more interactivity between audience and actors.
While Cages doesn’t break any new ground in terms of narrative, it absolutely stuns in its innovative use of live music and magnificent visuals. The sound design of Cages is a mixture of live music and pre-recorded vocals by select characters. This combination is so expertly interwoven that it is difficult to discern which performers are singing live. Conducted and live scored by Benjamin Romans, the music of the piece is catchy, moving, and moody with slightly gothic and emo undertones. The narrative dissects Woolf’s symphonic creations like a math equation – more love here, less anger there – and Romans’ score follows suit, emulating each feeling aurally. Romans bounces from instrument to instrument live in house (that you can watch via cleverly placed mirrors), and even makes an appearance on the stage during a climactic scene. His enthusiasm and talent for producing a score that encapsulates the story is unrelenting and astonishing.
Cages absolutely stuns, however, in its incorporation of projection mapping by David Richardson, Ryan Richardson, and Rufus Paisley. The stage is made up of several scrims (see-through curtains) that span the stage, in between and around which the few live actors move. The sets of the piece are entirely projected upon the scrims in a sharply contrasting black-and-white aesthetic. Upon the scrims, the audience is treated to whimsical locations, delicate close-ups of characters, emotional silhouette work, and fantastical, otherworldly effects. These effects allow anyone in house to have a clear view of the stage (but we do recommend getting a seat as close to the front as the venue lacks raised seating). To enhance that graphic novel styling, there is little spoken dialogue within the narrative – and that which is supposed to be spoken is shown via a dialogue card similar to silent films. There is a narrator of the piece whose disembodied voice can be heard for the duration, but within the story itself, there is only music, and that music drives the experience.
The live and pre-recorded cast members of Cages all excel in their physicality and emotional vulnerability. CJ Baran as Woolfe is mostly seen as a hunched-over silhouette, his stance and gestures expertly define his character. But it is Woolfe’s singing that drives the piece, and Baran is wonderful. Due to the live orchestration, it was sometimes difficult to make out the specific lyrics, but Baran’s vocal prowess combined with the music tells the audience all they need to know; the words are not important – it is how one feels. (For select songs, the lyrics are incorporated into the animated projection mapping.) Allison Harvard portrays Madeline in pre-recorded, projected visuals, with Frida Sundemo providing Madeline’s voice. Harvard’s large eyes and delicate demeanor instantly create a vulnerability that the audience can identify with, and Sundemo’s lilting soprano beautifully exudes Madeline’s longing to be somebody’s somebody. Also contributing to the character of Madeline is Mackenzie Stith as Madeline’s silhouette dancer, which combine with the projected mapping of close-ups of Harvard to glorious effect. Offering the story a bit of comedic reprieve is a pre-recorded Harwood Gordon, who acts as both the narrator and Woolfe’s mentor, The Chemist. An expert storyteller, Gordon provides some uplifting moments as well as a weight when the story turns more serious.
Cages is phenomenal and must be seen and heard to be understood; mere words do not do it justice. It takes an intimate and contained story and turns it into something much, much grander and visually stunning. All the elements – actors, lighting, sound, and graphics – work in tandem beautifully to create a stunning spectacle that is enhanced by the immersive elements outside of the theater. A review really cannot capture the magic; it’s a Tim Burton-esque graphic novel come to life, what music looks like when it dances. While I do not wish to be a resident of Anhedonia, I absolutely cannot wait to return to Cages.
Find out more about Cages – in previews through December 12 – and purchase tickets on their website, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook page. Make sure to subscribe to our Event Calendar for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.
All photography by Taylor Winters.