Hours before the show, mysterious text messages from unknown numbers deliver clues to your phone. They prompt you to show up at a functioning karaoke lounge in Koreatown and ask for a "Mr. Chen." After he deposits you on a nondescript office floor and you enter the headquarters of the mysterious Virgil Corporation, the next 60 minutes are a noir-styled futuristic escape room that pushes the boundaries of entertainment and reality.
Paradiso: Chapter One, the latest from immersive theater pioneer Michael Counts, feels like a cross between a clandestine speakeasy and an episode of Mr. Robot. Most escape rooms transpire in just one space with a loosely-conceived theme, but Paradiso unfolds through a series of rooms unlocked through scrappy ingenuity and by solving increasingly challenging puzzles. In one, a friend stole an actor’s cell phone to unearth clues. In another, someone cracked a code, then loaded a (fake) gun to ward off Virgil Corp cronies. “I wanted to craft layers and layers of hidden clues and deeper narratives that people could dig into, if they were interested," Counts tells The Creators Project. "Someone said to me, ‘You should hide clues inside source code of a website,’ and I was like, ‘Totally. You and two other people out of a thousand are gonna see that, but that’s so awesome.’”
The New York Times once called Counts a “mad genius,” and theater purists struggle to categorize his work. He is best known for The Walking Dead Experience, a terrifying zombie apocalypse variation on a haunted house, and The Ride, a site-specific twist on sightseeing tour buses. Inspired by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the collaborations of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham, Counts got his start producing underground art happenings. His company GAle GAtes acquired a 40,000 square foot warehouse in DUMBO in 1996, where their work evolved from art installations populated by performers to narrative experiences approaching theater. “But I’ve literally never in my life staged a play,” Counts says.
Paradiso makes it unclear where fiction ends and the real world begins. The production value is on par with Broadway and film (Counts’ co-producer, Jennifer Worthington, is former film executive who worked for Jerry Bruckheimer), and it's plausible that the dreary office building and seedy karaoke bar are all part of the set. “In a lot of immersive theater, you’re in the environment but not of the environment,” Counts says. “When we build a believable narrative and get the adrenaline going, people, like, tear shit off the wall. We had one guy last week who bear hugged a performer and pulled her to the ground to protect her. That’s a level of buy-in that’s kind of crazy but telling about how into it some people get.”
For Counts, fantasy bleeding into reality is a win. “On a rainy Friday night, K-Town looks like a scene out of Blade Runner,” he says. It is easy to drift out of Paradiso half-expecting someone to confront you with a cypher on the subway. Counts actually aims to capitalize on that sensation down the line—Paradiso: Chapter One is merely the first installment in what is slated to be a series of experiences inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Next time, Counts plans to take the action to the streets, coaxing people to act out fictional narratives in spaces they regularly encounter but rarely explore, and essentially turning all of New York City into his playground.