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Paradiso: Chapter 1

Takes immersive, participatory theater to a captivating whole new level -- targeting escape-room enthusiasts to solve Dante-inspired puzzles.

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A scene from Michael Counts’ “Paradiso: Chapter 1” happening in an undisclosed location in NYC (Photo credit: Caleb Sharp)

A scene from Michael Counts’ “Paradiso: Chapter 1” happening in an undisclosed location in NYC (Photo credit: Caleb Sharp)

Cynthia Allen, Critic

Freely borrowing from Dante, with a soupcon of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, 10 or less players band together and participate in a post-modern, interactive puzzle game in Paradiso: Chapter 1 — a new type of mind-bending immersive theater. The participants’ journey involves figuring out a complex and multifaceted narrative that is thought-provoking, challenging and enticingly creepy.

There are a series of locked rooms from which to escape, where clues are provided and then (hopefully) solved, in order to arrive at the white-knuckle endgame. Paradiso: Chapter 1 merges digital new media age savoir-faire and theater for a “with it” audience.

Each escape-room holds key(s) to maneuvering to the next room. A solution may take the form of a prop, of a set piece, or by interacting with performers positioned in some of the rooms as guides — eerie and fantastic Virgils. Agility in problem solving, teamwork and courage to make quick assessments in off-putting situations, takes having guts, mean something special and surprising in one circumstance.

Cooperation and working together (and with smart phones) are encouraged, for there is a 60-minute race against the clock to break free of each room and level up to the next one (participants are released from the room after an hour, even if they fail to complete the game). 3D holographic projection technology, along with other inventive special effects and intricate set designs add to the drama, and differentiate this escape-room, theatrical experience from other traditional ones.

Michael Counts is a long-time theatrical impresario and the creative genius behind Paradiso: Chapter 1. For over 20 years, Counts has been pushing the boundaries of theater — from esoteric performance art to site-specific happenings to a more public version of immersive theater called “The Ride” to last year’s immersive zombie fest, “The Walking Dead Experience,” to name but a few creative extravaganzas.

One of Counts’ mentors and biggest supporters since 2001 is Blue Man Group co-founder Matt Goldman. Under Goldman’s tutelage, he began to broaden his vision. As the escape-room craze took off in 2012, Counts had the prescience to capitalize on this entertainment genre in new and more innovative theatrical ways. He decided to create “happenings” for the 21st Century with an astute eye for what grabbed Millennials’ attention — from gaming to cult films to what is trending on TV and online shows.

A scene from Michael Counts’ “Paradiso: Chapter 1” happening in an undisclosed location in NYC (Photo credit: Caleb Sharp)

A scene from Michael Counts’ “Paradiso: Chapter 1” happening in an undisclosed location in NYC (Photo credit: Caleb Sharp)

In a July 7, 2016 New York Times interview, Counts talked about his creative process and his design approach to immersive theater, in general, and Paradiso: Chapter 1, specifically: “If you open a drawer, the lights change, the sound changes, video comes up behind a two-way mirror. Sound design, lighting design, video design, special effects designs are all triggered in an automated way. It’s like a theme-park ride in that respect.”

In another interview, Counts described his Dante inspiration: “The world we present is inspired by the classic story of the Divine Comedy. The epic tale of one man’s journey through the Nine Circles of Hell to Purgatory and Paradise unfolds while also combining elements of the surreal and mysterious.”

Counts also works with an uniquely qualified design team:  Lindsay Pitzer (The Ride: New York) – Line Producer; Gabriel Evansohn (Woodshed Collective, Queen of the Night) – Production Management and Associate Direction; Ryan O’Gara (Hamilton, New Disney Show Tokyo) – lights;  BeSide Digital (Walking Dead Experience and GQ x Giorgio Armani Grammy Party) – Video and Special Effects; Caleb Sharp (Walking Dead Experience, The Box Variety Show, Fighting Gravity) – Sound Design; Katie Fleming (The Walking Dead Experience, Sleep No More, Queen of The Night) – Props, Set Dressing and Associate Scenic Design. Additional production and creative development support has been provided by Captain and Rabbit Immersive.

A new media and sophisticated ticket booking system is brought into play even before the play begins. In order to buy tickets, a theatergoer has to give out his/her cell phone number for text follow-up information as to confirmation of time and the Midtown location. The immersive theater is kept secret until the day of booking the event. The address of where Paradiso: Chapter 1 is being held is texted only four hours before the participant’s allotted time.

Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” of the late 1950s have evolved into 21st Century immersive, participatory theater and imaginative escape-rooms. It is the latest blend of theater, art installation, special effects, and ever-changing new media. Counts maintains that there is still a craving for “live” interaction and “aha moments” that escape-room theater can provide, even though virtual reality experiences are all over the news.

If Paradiso: Chapter 1 attracts the huge following that Sleep No More (another type of immersive theater genre) has cultivated, then Counts has four more Paradiso sequels up his sleeve. After all Counts is an illusionist — a Houdini for our times who conjures up daring and imaginative experiences that are goosebumps ready.
Whether you win (get through all the rooms) or not, Paradiso: Chapter 1 is participatory entertainment at its most mesmerizing and fun.
Paradiso: Chapter 1 (through October 7, 2016)
Midtown Manhattan (location to be determined by text the day of booking tickets)
For tickets (advance booking is required), visit: http://www.paradisoescape.com/tickets/
Running Time:  60 minutes with no intermission

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