Get off at the Bedford L. Walk ten or so minutes into Greenpoint. Pass the house with the eerily-lit windows, but don’t forget it. You’ll be getting to know it quite well later. Turn the corner and enter the old church. This is where your journey begins.
Even the first moments of Andrew Hoepfner and Mike Campbell’s “surrealist immersive” show, Houseworld, succeed in transporting you to another realm. A witchy-looking cellist (Kelsey Lu) with impossibly long, white hair creaks and wails into a mic that loops and distorts while colored light dances around her. She feels like a ghost, and her voice echoes through the old room. As soon as you begin to feel uncomfortable, you are led into a bag check area and greeted by Charles (Alexandra Moro). She tells you that you’re about to meet her “batshit crazy” roommates, but if you ever get tired or scared, you can always come to her room for pizza and beer.
The San Damiano Mission, built in 1911 and taken over by Franciscans after sitting empty for several years, is the location of this dream come to life. The interactive theatrical experience is similar to NYC fixture Sleep No More: audience members are free to wander the many floors and rooms of the historic building (transformed by a skilled team of scenic designers), interacting for several hours with a colorful cast of characters intended to mirror aspects of the psyche.
It soon becomes clear that Charles was not lying about pizza and beer — her teenage boy-esque bedroom is indeed one of the nooks to wander into. When I found it, the black-clad songstress of death Amaya (Larkin Grimm)—who previously placed two cool coins on my eyelids and sang a dirge as I laid on a bed—slid in alongside me and snatched the last pizza slice in a delightful moment (but also sad, I wanted that pizza) and hissed, “Death is the last slice of pizza.”
Houseworld’s length (approx. 2.5 hours) seems like it could be tedious, especially when one can relatively breeze through most of the rooms in the house in less time. However, the show plants clever seeds, sending audience members on quests that one is never quite sure are actually achievable and presenting objectives for participants to busy their time with, if they so choose. Sitting in his dirty bathwater, the Bathtub Guru (longtime busker Joe Crow Ryan and former host of the Goodbye Blue Monday open mic) asked me for a blueberry. I was able to secretly snatch one from the chef’s (Salvatore Musumeci) table and bring it back to the Guru, but it did not lead to much more than my own satisfaction. Even events that seemed to more significantly alter the fabric of the house, such as a story involving game guru Nevins (Jason Trachtenburg, of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) and his mistreated basement-confined son (Ben Pagano), could be easily missed if you were in a different room at the time.
None of these tangible plot points in Houseworld seemed to trump the emphasis on the participant’s freedom. Performers also tended to wander throughout, and it was sometimes hard to tell who was in on it and who was in attendance. The presence of free snacks and alcohol helped it feel like a party, but that sort of tipsy agency sometimes led to attendees who were a little more focused on drawing attention to themselves.
However, it is the diverse cast that largely makes Houseworld such a compelling and fun time. They are able to cultivate an environment of exploration and relatability, becoming more than just mysterious figures but also potential friends. Creator Hoepfner (who appears in the show as well) has roots in music, but is also a frequent participant in experimental theater endeavors such as Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die. Some of Houseworld’s cast are actors, but most come from all sorts of artistic avenues, predominantly music of all genres. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with one performer, Taylor Edelhart, but was not able to experience their room during my time at the show.) The population of musicians in the cast made the relative lack of music in the piece a bit disappointing, although there were some notable moments, such as the sweeping gong-laced soundscape that brings the night to an end.
The press materials for Houseworld proclaim we will “explore different facets of the human psyche” and be “jolt[ed] into a different psychic state.” This experience is much more engaging (and less pretentious) than any lofty phrasings. If you were to ask me which room represented which psyche-facet, I would more than likely give you a blank stare. But if you were to ask if this was a fun time where I met characters I formed relationships with and had some nice adventures in a highly-intriguing church after dark, you’d certainly be correct.
An evening at the theater typically does not result in free booze and new friends, but it just so happens that Houseworld is not your typical evening of theater. Pass up a evening of dinner and cocktails in gentrified Williamsburg, walk a few more blocks and give that cash to the church of Houseworld instead. You won’t regret it in the morning.
Houseworld continues Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and 10:30pm until November 7 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th Street, Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Tickets are $60 and can be purchased here.
Houseworld is created by Andrew Hoepfner with Mike Campbell, with lighting design by MJ Kanai, scenic design by Emily Breeze, John Patrick Wells, Juan Marin, Marie Demple, and Shannon Pollak, costume design by Savana Leveille, video by Preston Spurlock, and sound contributions by Katie Rose Sardelli. Featuring bxk, Mike Campbell, Angela Carlucci, Magali Charron, Taylor Edelhart, Larkin Grimm, Dennie Hausen, Andrew Hoepfner, Michael Jay, Sherry Katopodes, Kelsey Lu, Alexandra Moro, Salvatore Musumeci, Ben Pagano, Beth Pagano, Rick Patrick, Jenny Reed, Joe Crow Ryan, Uriel Shlush-Reyna, Alice Epanchintseva, and Jason Trachtenburg.