The basement of the Chopin Theatre has been host to some of the most extraordinary immersive theater experiences in Chicago, from David Cromer’s intimate Our Town to Sean Graney’s promenade stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan to Nathan Allen’s living arcade The Last Defender. Rough House’s dramatic, puppet-filled walk-through haunted house is a formidable addition to the venue’s storied history, even if the final product isn’t much more substantial than the sum of its parts.
A deranged architect welcomes investors to tour the renovated Harrow House property, inspired by some of the spookier designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. As audiences wander down black scrim hallways, a dozen performers operate one-, two-, and three-person puppets and play a variety of lifesize characters, sentient limbs and gnarly, wicked The Thing-style amalgamations of human and monster. Lead puppet designer Grace Needlman’s macabre creations really are something to behold; part of the fun during the preshow is watching arriving audience members do double takes at the “person” standing next to them.
Not unlike David H. Bell’s long-running interactive production of Southern Gothic at Windy City Playhouse, Harrow House‘s story, by Mark Maxwell and Claire Saxe, is supposed to be inferred piecemeal by moseying around the set, playing with light boxes and tape recorders and observing characters interact. Compared to the puppets, some of the interactive elements feel chintzy, and even at a scant 60-minute running time, there’s not quite enough here to elevate director Mike Oleon’s show from decent PG-rated haunted house to full theatrical production. But as an exercise in design, Rough House has established one hell of an artistic point of view. v