Immersive theater has become a steady fixture in Downtown Los Angeles, with various productions putting audiences inside themed spaces, with actors interacting with visitors. Now a new production is taking immersive techniques, plus unconventional staging, to present a unique musical experience.
That’s the idea behind Cages, a new musical from the creative team of Woolf and the Wondershow. The musical group and production company has set up a multi-part theatrical experience in an Arts District warehouse that mixes cutting-edge projection and recording technology with live performers. The venue at 1926 E. Seventh Pl. is set up across multiple rooms in the building, starting with a themed bar, down a hallway of immersive rooms, and then finally in the theater itself where the show is performed. However, unlike many of the other theatrical productions in Downtown, which are often here for no more than a couple of weeks, the Woolf and the Wondershow team plans to stay.
Cages has been a long-simmering project for creators CJ Baran and Benjamin Romans. The pair, a pop-rock musician and songwriter and film composer, respectively, originally released a “baroque pop” EP of five songs in 2016 as Woolf and the Wondershow, even staging a low-budget pop-up show based on the music.
“That turned into us going down a freaking rabbit hole for four years [to turn it into something bigger],” Baran said.
The pair was able to get additional funding and secured a multi-year lease for the space on Seventh Place, transforming the 11,000-square-foot location into a theater and bar, and developing a full musical based on their initial EP.
The two-act show (there is a 20-minute intermission) is currently in previews, with an opening set for Dec. 5. The theater holds roughly 100 people and tickets start at $50.
The musical itself puts audiences inside the world of Anhedonia, a dystopian future where emotions are forbidden and people’s hearts are locked in cages (it’s mostly metaphorical, however costumes do have cages over the actors’ chests). The plot is more forward than the staging, following reclusive musician Woolf (Baran), who falls in love with Madeline, and the two struggle to hide their love in a world where any sign of it would be cause for execution. The entire show is set to music provided by Romans, via a blending of live performance and recordings he made of a 50-piece orchestra.
But it’s the staging of Cages that’s unique. Outside of a six-piece chorus (who also double as performers outside of the theater) Baran is the only actor actually on stage. The show is told through layered projections in front and behind the stage, with much of the cast having been pre-recorded. For instance, actress Allison Harvard portrays Madeline via a projection. However, Frida Sundemo provides Madeline’s singing voice. There’s animation as well, with equations and sound waves spilling out from Woolf’s musical instruments. Baran must play off that, which he said involves a lot of running to hit the mark on time during scene shifts.
“There are elements of film we thought could invade the theater,” he added. “It may not have been an easy concept, but it’s honest with our taste.”
The pair said that they went with their unique staging to try to capture the cinematic vision they had when writing the music. Aesthetically, the show recalls elements of German Expressionism, with surreal shapes, black, white and gray backgrounds, and macabre imagery. The songs themselves have traces of dark wave and electro-pop, with Baran and Sundemo providing sweeping vocals. Romans’ arrangements mix it up in style at times, with the arrival of Anhedonia’s guards featuring more hip-hop-like percussion, and non-musical scenes featuring a more whimsical score.
Outside of the main theater, the entire venue has been designed to represent Anhedonia. Small groups of audience members, usually no more than six at a time, enter through an antechamber, where a member of the chorus provides an eerie introduction. Guests then move on to the bar, dubbed The Chemist (after a character in the show). The entire space is designed to replicate a laboratory and the bar’s four cocktails are named after emotions. For instance, the Sadness cocktail is a blend of gin, vermouth and sherry, with an ashen herb “mascara,” while Love involves vodka, strawberry and champagne.
“We just want to have that element of escapism in all of the space,” Romans said. “If people can go and just have a drink, they can do that. But there are also so many layers, so people can go have fun before the show or during intermission.”
Between the bar and the theater, the space is set up as a narrow hallway, with a gate opening up to allow visitors to sit once showtime arrives. During the intermission the chorus takes over those spaces, where people can act out scenes from the show, from emotional lobotomies, to seeing certain characters’ medical charts. The space changes during the show, to reflect certain plot points.
The Woolf and the Wondershow team said that right now the focus is on opening the show, but did say that they have figured out how to scale the production and could see it hit the road in the future. They intend to keep Cages running for several months. They also see their space as a kind of workshop for additional multimedia shows, with Cages as their flagship.
Cages opens on Dec. 5 at 1926 E. Seventh Pl. or cagesdtla.com.