Nestled among the tranquil shade of overgrown oaks, red brick roads and the quaint shops of Orlando, Florida’s Virginia Mills district is an unassuming, off-white warehouse. Hiding within could very well be a portal to another dimension. Visitors see only a small sign on a nondescript door: they have arrived at The Republic.
As the appointed hour of 7:40 pm approaches, a small crowd has gathered around this gateway to the game-like realm inside. Their conversations are abruptly interrupted by the crashing sounds of intense reprimand from within the old building, and moments later an attendant emerges to scan credentials and secure signatures. Waivers acknowledged, entry is granted. All contact with the outside world is prevented as mobile devices are confiscated. The adventurers enter the waiting room as the “game” boots up.
Players are assigned roles via symbols and envelopes found in the foyer. A smartly dressed woman, who appears to be in charge, saunters in, apparently unhappy with the attendant. She summons the menacing “muscle” who, following her instruction, proceeds to reprimand the attendant—physically. Players watch in horror.
That sets the stage, and the players are off. Over the next several minutes, select adventurers are lead off into the unknown. The few remaining are instructed to blindfold each other, then guided into a labyrinth of turns and textures, taunted along the way and unable to react. The game begins.
The Republic was inspired by hours of immersive role-playing in video games, according to the show/game’s creator and director, Sarah A.S. Elger. “I realized that we could really bring gaming elements into theater,” she told me. “Instead of the audience merely watching, this could get them out of their seats, invested in the story as their actions drove the plot—like in a video game.” Elger described the experience as an open environment where participants go off on their own journeys/paths. They reconvene and split off, and there are multiple endings based on how the game is played.
The Republic is not a haunted house or an escape room. It is a theater experience that allows the players to interact with the physical space and support the story, much like Punchdrunk’s increasingly infamous Sleep No More show in New York. It’s about the connection with other players and characters, and the plot that moves inevitably toward its conclusion.
Players (up to 30 per game) are assigned roles in one of three levels within the game: the Republic, the main inhabitants of the world (including the elite Gold citizens); the Office, the Overlords running the Republic; and the Labyrinth, a colorful underworld. Each realm motivates players into action with their own agendas and conflicts.
Helping the action along are 13 actors who assume the roles of non-player-characters (“NPCs,” a term borrowed directly from video games). Encounters with characters like a slice-happy Surgeon, Sir (the tyrannical female CEO), an evil inventor, the menacing Minotaur, an all-seeing Oracle, and a very sensual “Medusa the Sedusa” enrich the experience. At times the game pauses player interaction to show the equivalent of video game cutscenes, the NPCs interacting with one another and helping drive the program along to one of many possible endings. Of course, the ultimate outcome rests in the hands (and choices) of the many players.
My date was whisked off early as a recruit for the Office, where her interaction with Cassandra, the Surgeon and the Minotaur greatly impacted the outcome of the game. Amid elements of conspiracy, betrayal and double cross, she learned the true nature of the Labyrinth. Saying more would be spoiling it, so I’ll resist.
Meanwhile, I was one of only four left in the room at the start of the game, blindfolded and eventually lead into the Labyrinth to meet Medusa (a very convincing seductress). I was eventually guided through secret passages and shown a hidden room complete with a surprising and very adult encounter.
If The Republic were an actual video game, it would be rated “M for mature” for its adult themes, nudity and graphic scenes (it’s limited to players over 18). But the game’s intense immersion level should not deter the faint of heart from attempting to partake. While the adults-only experience can be a challenge for some, there is a way out. Players have only to mention the safe word—“pineapple,” like the ones placed peculiarly on the ground outside near the entrance—to be offered escape from the game.
MASTER THE DUNGEON
Here’s an interesting insight into the creativity in the game/show’s production: the director, Elger, is known as “the dungeon master” and has a “secret lair” where she oversees the entire maze, communicating with the cast via radio to ensure elements of excitement are exactly timed. She monitors players who “go rogue,” directing characters to check in on them but allowing them to explore on their own.
Supporting the fast paced pathos is an original score composed by Greg Nicolette, broken into three different tracks (one to represent each world). They play simultaneously, each blending with the other for a seamless, subtle sound throughout. Additional atmosphere is provided by the makeup talents of Face Off-featured artists Eric Garcia and David O’Connell.
The Republic’s broad appeal is its unique, up-close and personal style of storytelling: thrilling theater in a non-traditional setting. Video game enthusiasts will especially feel right at home as they assume various roles while interacting with other players and characters. They have the freedom to explore the expansive and exciting world and should enjoy the chance to influence gameplay, guiding it towards the event’s finale. “It’s like an action adventure game, more about how the player engages with the spaces and people around them,” Elger explained to me.
The show runs on weekends throughout this month, and its creators plan to reboot it for a new run next year. Head here for tickets.
Michael Gavin (The Paranormal Paparazzi)—Taphophile and passionate photographer, Michael Gavin enjoys the strange and unusual. Having produced Orlando Florida’s ghost tour, he’s published ghost stories for GHOST! Magazine, co-hosted a paranormal radio show and his photographs have appeared in Forbes, Inside the Magic, and several Central Florida attractions.
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