The Vortex's Performance Park

Whatever you want to call this play / scavenger hunt / immersive live roleplay, it's a one-of-a-kind, wonderful theatrical experience

Photo by Errich Petersen

Performance Park, now occupying the full Vortex compound (including the Butterfly Bar and Patrizi's food truck), is strange. I don't mean that disparagingly; simply as the antipode of "familiar." It is simultaneously a play, musical, game, scavenger hunt, live-action roleplay, immersive performance art, and more. I went twice to experience the full scope and still don't feel like I caught everything. I know of nothing quite like it, and the night is truly what you make of it. Give yourself the whole evening to explore (the piece runs about 3 hours in its entirety), and wear your walkin' shoes.

After entering the grounds (only a handful of participants are allowed entry at staggered start times), I was directed to see the Fool, the first of many tarot-based denizens of Performance Park I'd encounter, played superbly by Vortex box office manager Alex Cogburn. I'll pause here and spare us some adjectives. Every performer involved is magnificent, fully inhabiting their characters and constantly drawing us "citizens" further into the world they've created, where magic, love, truth, and justice combine to dismantle systems of oppression – with a little help from you, of course. The Fool explained what the evening would entail and the contents of my toolkit, a small pouch containing various items I'd need on my journey. I was then directed to the Lovers (Marliza Mendez and Traci Laird), who bade me choose a mask, costume piece, and a card that would signify my house affiliation. After a promise to seek the truth with love in my heart (and a pinky promise to return everything at the end of the evening), I was introduced to my house's Queen – coincidentally, Jennifer Coy Jennings as the Queen of Cups on both evenings. The Queens offer a bit more advice: You can try to solve the mystery, play games on the Midway, sing a song at the "Chariot Races" lounge, or simply grab some drinks and/or food and observe the fine storytelling. You "choose your own adventure," as you'll hear several times. Stay as late or little as you wish.

I chose, both nights, to "solve" the park. On the second night, I succeeded. I'd take you step by step through my experience, but that would provide you a road map to victory, and hey, that's cheating. Sorry. You're on your own, sucka.

I'll offer some highlights, though. The Midway is great fun, with its many games of skill and chance – though I lost my soul on night one to the Devil (Trey Deason) and never got it back. I also made a questionable moral decision with Death (Content Love Knowles), but also won a free shot, so that evened out. I got a bit damp passing through a "waterfall" designed by Kenneth Gall, but it was worth it to have a discussion with the Hermit (Heidi Penix). And you definitely don't want to miss a visit with High Priestess Baba Yaga (Melissa Vogt) ... unless you are a tasty young child, that is. (I'm frankly not sure if I've a bigger theatre-crush on Vogt or Baba herself at this point.) Try to spend some time with the Empress (Tiffany Nicely-Williams) and Emperor (Gabriel Maldonado), fresh back from their honeymoon. Snag an invite to their table if you can (your Queen can probably help with this). If you can collect all five "keys" to the park before the finale, you'll be treated to ... well, something special (sorry!).

Conceived and directed by Vortex Producing Artistic Director Bonnie Cullum and written by Cullum, Sarah Saltwick, Lorella Loftus, Teresa Cruz, and the ensemble, Performance Park itself is an exceptionally lofty undertaking. Scenic design by Ann Marie Gordon and Griffon Ramsey transforms the entire property, with lighting by Patrick Anthony, sound and video engineering by David DeMaris, choreography by Toni Bravo, costumes by Pam Fletcher Friday, and original music by Chad Salvata, Tyler Mabry, DeMaris, and Sergio R. Samayoa.

Whatever we decide to call Performance Park, the fact remains that there's nothing quite like it. I must report that all my tarot-related experiences in the park were eerily accurate. I had an absolute blast and hope the Vortex gang will consider a follow-up soon. Maybe something sci-fi inspired next time?

Performance Park

2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through May 13
Running time: 3 hr. (or less, depending on the visitor)

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The Vortex, Bonnie Cullum, Melissa Vogt, Jennifer Coy Jennings, Alex Cogburn, Marliza Mendez, Traci Laird, Trey Deason, Content Love Knowles, Heidi Penix, Gabriel Maldonado, Tiffany Nicely-Williams, Sarah Saltwick, Lorella Loftus, Teresa Cruz, Ann Marie Gordon, David DeMaris, Pam Fletcher Friday, Patrick Anthony, Toni Bravo

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