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Jolene Kim in Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin from East West Players & Rogue Artists Ensemble. (Photo by Rebecca Bonebrake)
Jolene Kim in Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin from East West Players & Rogue Artists Ensemble. (Photo by Rebecca Bonebrake)

Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin

Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
East West Players & Rogue Artists Ensemble
Extended through November 19

It is the joining of two disparate elements that so enticed me to see Lisa Dring and Chelsea Sutton’s Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin. The dichotomies are many: East and West, play and haunt, the mundane world and the spirit realm, and an exciting collaboration between East West Players, known for its distinguished history of producing Asian-American drama, and Rogue Artists Ensemble, a younger company which has carved out its own niche in creating what they call “hyper-theater”.

Kana Mori, owner of Mori Storage, has recently gone missing. Her employees are under the impression that Kana is still somehow located inside the storage facility (a 10,000-square foot warehouse in a secret location), and have summoned you and others to help the search efforts along. (She must have been well-liked: I can think of any number of bosses I wouldn’t send out a search party for.)

A creaking elevator lift descends, and an ominous figure beckons you to hop on board. Ascending the floors, there is truly a feeling of departure and arrival. When you disembark, it is within a surreal labyrinth, textured by moving boxes and traditional Japanese imagery (creative scenic design by Keith Mitchell and Dillon Nelson).

Before she went missing, Kana became obsessed with her Japanese heritage, particularly Japanese folklore. “Kaidan,” after all, means haunting tales, often revolving around ghosts, apparitions, karma and vengeance. Images of the kitsune, or fox spirit, are focused prominently in Kana’s office.

The element of discovery is so much a part of the joy of this production, which is directed by Sean T. Cawelti, that I will not reveal any spoilers.

The technical elements are incredible: They are designed well, suited to the space, and perfectly in synch with the migration of the audience and the story. Adrien Prévost’s music and Steve Swift and Gilly Moon’s sound design particularly impress; as you move through the haunting rooms, they create what feels like a personal soundtrack — one not demanding too much focus, just coloring the piece. Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design, which utilizes the warehouse’s character to the show’s advantage, equally astounded.

Highlighting one of Rogue Artist Ensembles’ claims to fame, Cawelti, Jack Pullman, and Brian White design a host of remarkable visual puppets and masks.

The story itself remains disjointed — more of a surreal take on folkloric themes than a strict plot per say. On the night I attended, it was hard to distinguish whether the dialogue needed fine-tuning or if the actors, after a marathon of performances — this was the final show of the night — were just very fatigued. Either way, the dialogue meandered, and sometimes seemed off the cuff.

The highlight of Kaidan for me was a section that offered a sanctuary for one’s inner mind. Four rooms invited audiences to enter and explore on their own time — a really lovely and wholly immersive experience. Regrettably, the rules were not made clear, and I and others did not realize we could freely explore the space. There were two rooms I was really drawn to, but I was waiting to be led by the actors, as we had been guided by them up until that point. Not that I didn’t enjoy raking a Zen garden for five minutes (in fact, that was awesome), but I felt robbed of the opportunity to explore as much as I could.

Similar problems arose throughout the experience. The level of interaction expected from the audience was confusing. For example, one of the first characters you meet tells you not to touch anything. It’s easy to interpret this as a rule rather than a character quirk — but in fact there are select times where audience members are asked to touch or take things. Another instance: Near the end, my group walked through a dark hallway. The actor we met on the other side seemed to break with her dialogue: “Did you come in the dark? I left lanterns for you.”  How would we know?  In an immersive show like this, both the guidelines and the options should very much be made as clear as possible.

With such an ambitious undertaking, wrinkles in the fabric are bound to exist. Further exploration, a refinement of theme, and clarifying the rules for the audience could have made this show great. Still, this is a fascinating look into another world, an admirable experiment, a successful collaboration, and a perfect Halloween event for a discerning theater-goer.

East West Players & Rogue Artists Ensemble at a secret mid-city warehouse; Thurs. – Sun. Every 20 minutes beginning at 7:30 p.m., plus some additional dates and times; Extended through November 19;; Running time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.