We've all collected stories from the past year that will forever remind us of what it was like to live under the shadow of a pandemic. Maybe you experience flashbulb visions of a grocery store picked clean of toilet paper, or your first surreal Zoom happy hour, or another lonely afternoon watching LeBron James pick up a triple-double in front of empty bleachers. Personally, I'll always remember how I spent last Friday evening: Dressed like I had someplace to go for the first time in 12 months, watching a sauced sextet of 1920s socialites vie for my attention.
The company is called Seize The Show; they bill themselves as a fully immersive virtual theater troupe, and they started running productions in 2020 while the rest of the live performance industry was indefinitely suspended. Sign up for a timeslot, and Seize The Show sends over a Zoom link that you casually open like you're settling into a creaky theater seat.
Tonight's production is called That Night At Gatsby's, and sure enough, the curtains roll up, and your screen fills with a cast caked in 1920s pageantry. The actors have green screens behind them that offer a faint facsimile of the famed Fitzgerald manor, and they flit in and out between the scenes, engaging in some mild flirting, some fizzy highballs, and some hot gossip.
All of this is directed towards the audience, who are as part of the play as anyone on "stage." Collectively we're cast as an overwhelmed Nick Caraway-like figure, lost in the empty debauchery of the period. We are blessed with the agency to dictate how the night goes. I vote for what I want to happen next on my phone, which is logged into a service on the Seize The Show website that runs concurrently with the script.
Does our hapless interloper want to stick around the garage and talk cars with George? Or do we run off to the ballroom with Daisy? The whole operation feels a bit like a '90s FMV game, except that it's performed live and uncut.
Seize The Show has perfected a business model that, in my personal ascertainment, would've had no chance in hell in the Before Times. But after 12 months of pitiless doldrums, as we exclusively saw our friends and family through ravioli-sized portals on our laptops, perhaps humanity has been desensitized enough by the sheer strangeness of our predicament that a night in with a telecommuting Gatsby feels like a perfect way to burn off another uneventful Saturday.
And so, that's how I ended up busting out my best weddings-reception blazer (forebodingly tight around the shoulders after a steady accumulation of pandemic girth) and pulling it around a sweat-stained Hawaiian shirt. My girlfriend poured a glass of wine, I opted for a no-lime vodka soda, and we both settled into the only party anyone can attend right now. 2021 is full of surprises.
The actors worked with gusto. There is only so much you can do in the limited real estate of a video call, but each of them threw on their best dainty roaring-'20s accents as they introduced the audience to the evening's stakes: Gatsby has taken a shine to us, and has decided to bequeath his fortune to our net worth at the end of the evening. (Hopefully that inheritance does not come with the corresponding FBI investigation.) There is only one condition: We must find ourselves a partner by night's end.
At various chokepoints during the play, the audience decided who we want to besmirch, or praise, or flatter in the various moneyed controversies that pop up over the course of an average Gatsby soiree. It's a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, except you're at the mercy of everyone else in the lobby. I was most charmed by the downcast, disheveled George and his extreme melancholic vibes, but my preference frequently lost in the polls. Instead, we gravitated to Tom, who resembled a Coolidge-era himbo with a disconcerting superiority complex.
My Zoom camera remained firmly off throughout the show. You never speak directly to the cast; this is still mostly passive entertainment. This also means that my sad little outfit went entirely unseen by everyone who wasn't present in my apartment, which was probably for the best.
I reserved hope that the actors had actually poured some fine, herbaceous gin into their martini glasses—if only because I didn't want to be drinking alone—but I suspect that's unlikely. As surreal as the whole thing feels, they're still professional actors.
I have to give Seize The Show credit. They found a way to integrate something you could reasonably call "gameplay" into what is—I reiterate—a digital chamber drama. There are moments of narrative-wedging and Mass Effect-style moral choices. Our audience refused to turn down any drink offered to us, which led to an abundance of judging glances as the hours wore on. Occasionally we were asked to recount the details of a conversation in perfect order, like an SAT word problem, which we failed at repeatedly. There were even a couple incidents where we were asked to rapidly pound a button on our phone to charm the partygoers, like an extremely stripped-down version of the Street Fighter car-smash mini-game. As esoteric as the show is, they commit to it with shocking, inspiring faith.
I say give Seize The Show a try. Maybe you possess deep nostalgia for Tex Murphy movie-game extravaganzas, or maybe you want a touchstone you can point to, years down the line, when explaining to your children and grandchildren just how friggin' bored everyone was during this interminable year-plus we've spent in the barrel.
That's the feeling I was left with at the end of the show. I thought about all those actors on the other end of the call, condemned to their bedrooms like us, trying everything they can to keep their spirits up while Covid wreaks havoc. A night at Gatsby's, for better or worse, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Please send George my love.