An Evening in Chicago with the Living Dead
Chicago is known for its vibrant amateur theater scene. Usually low budget and unvarnished, the stereotypical performance is clever and quirky (or at least aspires to be) and takes place in a subterranean space where maybe the heat works, and maybe it doesn’t. In early February my wife and I happily gave ourselves credit for notching another of these events, even though this particular one was on the sixth floor and the heat worked. We attended a production of “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie”. While not exactly a theater performance, it is a solid addition to Chicago’s collection of oddball entertainments.
If you are planning to go, you can keep reading: there will be no spoilers here. It would be easy to ruin the fun for the next attendee, so my recommendation to those who have purchased tickets is to keep your fingers clean: if a water-cooler conversation veers toward details of the show, you can put them in your ears and holler, “Blah, blah, blah, I’m not listening!” without fear of infection.
The show’s downtown address had me expecting a high level of professionalism, bordering, perhaps, on sterility. That concern was unnecessary. The location was 420 S. Michigan, the Fine Arts building. It’s a quirky old place, with wide open halls and staircases. The elevator still has a human operator who presses buttons and pulls levers. Whether that is due to the building owners trying to maintain a touch of nostalgic fun, or union intransigence, didn’t make much difference – it was still entertaining to see a museum in action.
The show’s premise is a riff on the Murder Mystery Dinner theme. The participants have 60 minutes to solve the clues which will allow them to escape a locked room, making them both the audience and the performers. There is a zombie in the room. Anyone touched by the zombie has to spend the remainder of the hour in time-out. There can be up to 12 participants. My biggest fear going in was how well I was going to be able to cooperate with 10 people I didn’t know. Would they take it seriously? Would they be drunk? Should I get drunk ahead of time just to show them how annoying it is to have to cooperate with a drunk person?
When we arrived the MC took a couple minutes to explain the premise and the rules, most of which were common sense, don’t-be-an-idiot kind of things. She did emphasize that it was important to work together. Then she locked us in the room.
It was an old, worn office space in a class C building. There was a table, a desk, and a couple cabinets with the props and clues to be solved scattered about. There was little to distinguish it from any of the many other featureless offices in downtown Chicago. Except this one also contained an actress, made up as zombie, rolling around on the floor and moaning. There was a digital stopwatch on the wall counting down our hour. Let the solving begin.
The importance of working together turned out to be true in spades. I got sidetracked early on while the main group made an important discovery. I then couldn’t get anyone to explain the discovery to me. They weren’t necessarily rude; it seemed more that they were excited to get going on the next clues and didn’t want to take the time to give me a remedial lesson. But I didn’t care. Despite being slightly adrift, I was having a barrel of fun running in circles, finding clues to solve.
12 people were too many for that size of room. We were jumping about, trying to avoid the zombie, but a couple of the XLs weren’t nimble enough, and, after some inadvertent jostling, they mostly stayed in the back.
Everyone in the group had at least a little enthusiasm and a couple of people were exceptionally good at solving the clues. That said, there were also a couple instances when I finished whatever side project I was working on, asked someone what the solution to their clue was, and had to stifle an incredulous snort on hearing the answer.
The zombie was of the old-school, Night-of-the-Living-Dead variety; that is, slow and awkward. It was pretty easy to avoid her. The game was essentially a race against the clock, but the zombie added an element of panic to the proceedings. It was harder to concentrate, and a couple times I had to stop what I was working on to temporarily move to safety. Adding the zombie was a master touch that made the whole thing much more fun and exciting than it would have been otherwise.
Our group didn’t figure out how to escape. Afterwards, the MC explained the solutions and it was clear we weren’t even close. There was a lot of whacking of foreheads. We all lined up for a group photo afterward, and the MC snapped a shot with each participant’s camera, making this the only entertainment venue in the greater Chicago area where the staged group photo is not used as the opportunity to soak the customer for the last few dollars in his wallet as he is walking out the door.
I had trouble falling asleep that night, as I kept replaying the clues over and over in my head. How did you miss that, I kept asking myself. You’re getting old and weak, was the only answer I could come up with. My biggest gripe with the production turned out to be that there is currently only one version running, so I can’t redeem myself until they come up with a different storyline later this year.