The Last Defender House Theatre of Chicago

Extended to Aug 6th: Thu-Fri 7p/9p; Sat 2p, 4p, 7p, 9p; Sun 3p/5p

 

Artistic Director Nathan Allen and Company Member and D.C. Comics artist Chris Burnham, team up with some of Chicago’s best loved puzzle and game designers in this world premiere. Together, they create a wholly new experiment in immersive story and stagecraft. It’s part performance, part puzzle hunt, and part live action game.

 

Tickets: $40-$45

Tickets/More Infor 773-769-3832, House Theatre Chicago 


1/21/16 - 8/6/16

Thu-Fri 7p, 9p; Sat 2p, 4p, 7p, 9p; Sun 3p, 5p


 

With the "Last Defender" House Theatre puts on a Cold War puzzle room - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 2/9/16 - "e latest endeavor from the restless minds at the House Theatre of Chicago is not so much a show as a puzzle room, constructed in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Therein, an audience with a maximum size of 16 attempts to save the world from nuclear annihilation.
This is no easy task.
So hard were the assignments — which include codes, Battleship game-like endeavors, jigsaw puzzles, marbles in tubes, levers, sequencing challenges, electrical connections, board games, computer programming, light engineering and heavy brain activity — that your humble and intellectually limited correspondent was moved to break his usual iron-clad, post-show silence. He injudiciously uttered "bit too hard" thereafter, based on his smart Thursday night group having failed utterly to stop the destruction of many large and densely populated American cities, resorting only in panic to the game's fail-safe device. This results in a kind of a not-very-satisfying draw involving mutually assured destruction. I am not sure if we really stopped the planet from vaporizing.
Your weak correspondent was however immediately assured that the "success rate" of groups attending "The Last Defender" to date has been around 20 percent, and thus "in line" with puzzle rooms around the country.
Wow. Tough field.
If you are the kind of person who salivates at the cruelty of Cards Against Humanity and loves the embrace of game as a verb, "The Last Defender" might well be your kind of show. It also might well make a few bucks for the House if they can tap into the corporate market, wherein businesses are ever-anxious to torture their employees with team-building, problem-solving exercises designed to boost levels of cooperative performance and raise levels of employee stress.
Watch out WhirlyBall! Be glad most MBA recruiters cannot find their way to the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street.
Since all 16 audience members are forced to interact and work together to solve the House puzzle — and yes, annoying natural leaders do emerge and group tactics are required — you do learn a thing or two about the theatergoers around you, clad, like you, in orange jumpsuits, which has the unintended effect of making you feel like you are a resident of Cook County Jail, albeit one with an unusually apocalyptic exercise routine.
"The Last Defender" (which has multiple performances during the weekends) was penned by artistic director Nathan Allen, with puzzle design by Sandor Weisz, software by Ben Wilhelm and art direction by the fine artist Chris Burnham. The environment is cool. As you walk through the installation you're followed by silent black rabbits (whose job is to help, you're told) and by a mysterious fellow with a laptop, whom you suspect is messing with you at every single moment.
The ambience of the affair is not so much hi-tech as retro — more "Space Invaders" than "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3." And the actual puzzles are mostly analog creations. It's all a great deal of fun.
I'd say the overall narrative needs a bit of work — it was never quite clear to me what were the how and whys of the various endings and their relative levels of catastrophe and political import. Those rabbits could get a bit more involved. The live-action component could be beefed up. And quite a few technical problems had yet to be solved at the final preview I attended — although "attended" is not really the right word for this show.
Still, "The Last Defender" certainly is a unique attraction among Chicago theaters of the moment. If you could pull together a big group for this 90-minute communal experience, you'll have an especially revealing time, and learn quite a bit more about your pals under pressure. Well, they were your pals going in ...
The Last Defender - Dan Jakes, Chicago Reader - "In hindsight, room-escape puzzles are such perfect combinations of storytelling, stagecraft, and giddy theater-school camaraderie that it’s astonishing one of Chicago’s immersive-design-focused companies like the House Theatre hasn’t created one sooner. Nathan Allen’s ambitious 90-minute experience puts four groups of four jumpsuit-clad players together to prevent catastrophe in a scenario inspired by retro video games: Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction. Sander Weisz’s elaborate puzzles are so fun and challenging that it’s easy to overlook how impressive the coordinated arcade consoles, projection screens, periscope viewers, dot matrix printers, fog machines, and live-action Spaceteam walls really are. It’s a logistical and technical achievement that will undoubtedly satisfy even the pickiest problem-solving nerd—here’s hoping these become a trend".
Four Stars - The Last Defender - Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 2/29/16 - "he House Theatre's Cold War room escape is an adrenaline-generating team-building exercise with strangers.
After you and your 15 fellow recruits in the Defender program have suited up and been given your code names, you’re split into sub-teams. But the only competition in this wildly immersive experience is against the clock. All of you will have to work together the mutually assured destruction of the world outside this bunker in all-out nuclear war.
It’s hard to know exactly what to call the House Theatre’s latest, other than awesome. But what it really is is a high-design room-escape game. Working with Chicago puzzle designer Sandor Weisz and comics artist Chris Burnham, director Nathan Allen has crafted an incredibly smart and detailed Cold War-era environment that requires each of the teams to solve an initial set of puzzles at a retrofitted arcade-game console. From there, the proceedings get only more complex, and everyone has to work together (sometimes literally everyone at once) as you race to prevent a nuclear launch.
If anything, The Last Defender might be too smart. By the time I played, a few weeks into the run, one of the stagehands who give you silent guidance throughout play told us afterward that only one team had so far fully solved the puzzle; the 90-minute time limit allows about a dozen “performances” a week. (My team was not the one that saved the world.) Part of you wants to go back for another shot, but you also know it but you also know it wouldn’t quite be fair, or as fun, to return with any of the knowledge you gained the first time. Uniquely challenging and exhilarating, The Last Defender is exciting new territory for the House.
The Last Defender - Kevin Greene, NewCity Chicago - "RECOMMENDED There are two words that can make almost any regular theatergoer flinch: audience participation. The irony is unmistakable. In an art form that lives and dies on vulnerability, our threshold for discomfort is set squarely at the fourth wall. This intolerance is the theatrical equivalent of avoiding eye contact with the petitioners outside your gym. So it inspires great humility and even greater pleasure to report that the most enjoyable show currently playing in Chicago not only encourages participation but requires it. Mining a richly retro aesthetic, “The Last Defender” finds gobs of inspiration in Reagan-era propaganda. Fuzzy VHS recordings, 8-bit computer programs and orange jumpsuits à la Steve Zissou, laughable in the era of streaming HD video and Lululemon, are as natural here as hipster beards and fixed-gear bikes down the street in Wicker Park. Yet, there’s more to this artistic decision than just poking fun at that most kitschy of decades. “The Last Defender” necessitates problem solving in analog formats via direct communication. In a time when even crosswords and Sudoku puzzles are being done on tablets and cellphones, running to and fro in the basement of the Chopin I felt as though I was unlocking a dusty part of my animal brain. An active part. While the story part of this experience tends to get lost in the hubbub, House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, who wrote and directed this piece, has a mission that is loftier than mere entertainment. Anyone with passing familiarity with the House would well expect the high levels of design found here in spades thanks to Chris Burnham (art direction), Sandor Weisz (puzzles), Lee Keenan (scenic and lighting), Melissa Torchia (costume), Eleanor Kahn (properties) and many others. Still, trusting one’s ensemble is one thing, trusting one’s audience is quite another. House Theatre of Chicago is responsible for some of the least-pretentious high art in our city. There is real and well-deserved affection for this company that goes beyond niche. Like a spring-loaded door on the other side of which is the key to saving the world, they release something in us. So come play. The world needs you, defender".
The Last Defender - Jacob Davis, ChicagoStageStandard.com - "18:30: I arrive early to the downstairs Chopin to take over my task as last defender of the world. The command center is still being re-set from the previous last defenders’ shift. I am issued my identification card, and page through my program of Nabucco while awaiting the arrival of the rest of my team-mates. I am in the communications division.
19:00: Orientation begins. Our task is to monitor Soviet nuclear activities, and to save the world, destroy it, or reach some kind of compromise. We are told that saving the world is the most difficult outcome to achieve. Assisting us in solving puzzles will be silent crew members in black bunny masks, and one in a black bear mask. Teamwork will be crucial, so we are reminded to share information, and defer to those who display natural leadership. Tight lips sink ships.
19:05: We enter the locker-room to change into our jumpsuits. The lockers have combination locks. In our first exercise in teamwork, we share our recollections of facing this problem in school, and succeed, after some struggle, in opening our lockers. Within are our jumpsuits (we supplied our sizes in an emailed form ahead of time), belts, and quarters for operating our work consoles. Our defender names are written on our uniforms. I am Defender Countdown. The other member of the communications division also returned his guest ticket, so there were only two of us. I think he was called Defender Strikethrough. Normally there are sixteen team members, but we were down two.
19:10: We take an elevator to our deep underground base. Within is a warning that Zelda, the artificial intelligence in charge of managing the nuclear missiles, tends to malfunction a lot and supply dubious wisdom. There is a key for accessing the nuclear override interface, which we entrust to Defender Strikethrough, thinking him the most competent. 19:20: Inside the main base, we view a tutorial video instructing us on the tenets of Mutually Assured Destruction. Our job is to stay wary in case the Soviets launch missiles at us. If Zelda informs us they have, we are to contact Central Systems Command to verify the threat. If verified, we are to allow the counterstrike to launch automatically. If not, we will have to override the return strike. We are also presented with our orders of the day. I am tasked with going to the library in the corner, and examining the encyclopedia.
19:30: I determine that the encyclopedia is a collection of video cassettes with names of people and cities on them. I assume this will be important to determining a pattern-puzzle later. While I examine the cassettes, an alarm goes off, telling us that the Soviets have launched their missiles. A sixty minute timer appears on the main screen, telling us we have until it runs out before Zelda launches the counterstrike. The ghost bunnies usher us to our consoles so we can attempt to reach Central Systems Command. Our first task is to figure out which city Central Systems Command is located in.
19:35: Defender Strikethrough and I share ideas and information about how to reach Washington. Tight lips sink ships. One of the ghost bunnies points out that while we have been sharing ideas, we neglected to read the instructions directly in front of us. We contact Washington, and find that the phone menu has been encoded. While we work on decoding the phone menu so we can tell whether or not we are under attack, Zelda lists American cities that have been wiped out, at the rate of one about every ten seconds.
19:39: We reach Central Systems Command and are put on hold.
19:40: We ascertain that the purported Soviet strike is a computer error. The ghost bunnies guide us through figuring out how to access the override module. It involves spelling out “denuclearization” with only a sign with the word “denuclearization” written on it to guide us.
19:50: We succeed in spelling “denuclearization” despite the absence of two team-mates, and access the override console. There are ten missiles in the Chicago base which will launch in forty minutes, and we have to disable each one individually by plugging in certain letter-number combinations. To obtain these combinations, we have to solve the puzzles throughout the room. Delegation is required. Some team members who happen to be professional actors step into the role of leadership, and dispatch us to stations. I have noticed that often when a group of people are confused and irresolute, actors will take charge. I think this is because they are able to project their voices and are accustomed to making strong character choices. As a critic, I was concerned that we had not given sufficient debate to whether we wished to prevent a nuclear war or cause one, but I am less accustomed to being inspirational or co-operative.
20:00: A ghost-bunny holds my hand while I attempt to figure out the secret of the cassettes. Following our ghost-bunnies’ non-verbal urging to provide help to others, nobody actually ends up at the station they were delegated. Instead, we flit around, solving parts of mind puzzles, or attempting to figure out what the puzzles are. There are ones involving weights, the game battleship, the cassettes, dots on pillars, laser dots, and bunkbeds, among other things. I end up with a box which, by its label, contains a tactile puzzle. I sit despondent and perplexed, sifting through the box’s contents until a ghost-bunny takes pity on me, and brings over help.
20:10: My team-mates find an instructional manual in the box, which I somehow overlooked. I resign the tactile challenge, and join the group working on the cassettes to “help.”
20:15: I join the group working on electrical paths and “help.”
20: 20: I join the group working on dots and “help.”
20:25: The group working on the tactile puzzle realize that they need my help to identify chess pieces and set up the game board. Using my unique skill set, we are able to complete the puzzle, obtain the code, and disable a missile. Each of us feels like a valued member of the team, and that we have gained insights into co-operation and communication. The ghost-bunnies are proud of us.
20:29: With less than a minute to go, nobody has any idea how to solve the last puzzle. One of our leaders decides we should blow ourselves and the Chicago area up to disable the last missile, and those of us nearby meekly hand over our key cards in deference to the loud voice. We also collect key cards from the team-members who were distracted and don’t know what they are agreeing to, but understand we need their cards for something important. I feel that we have gained insight into how mass suicides happen. The ghost-bunnies brace for impact.
20:30: The world is saved, at the cost of Chicago. Following the conclusion of the game, we are told the secret of the final puzzle, and I still don’t understand it. Apparently, it is very rare for anybody to succeed in obtaining peace without casualties. Our team came the closest one can to achieving the best outcome without actually achieving it. We are invited back to play the game again.
Certainly, there was a huge amount I didn’t see. There were some puzzles I didn’t touch at all, and some I wasn’t even aware of because I mostly kept to one side of the room. On the other hand, it is possible for a person who already knows how most puzzles and the override console work to push their way through without sticking to the script. That might not be a bad thing; given the interactive nature of this kind of story-telling, more of a role-playing element would have been welcome. New players are likely to spend much of the ninety minutes too confused to do anything but what they are told.
Those who were most active in taking command and matching the game’s rapid pace seemed to have had the most fun, and nostalgia for eighties titles like War Games seemed to help a lot, too. The only one of Sandor Weisz’s puzzles I saw through from start to finish looks ridiculously easy in retrospect, and the difficulty was created mostly by the chaotic environment of the room. But it may have been unique in that regard, or maybe that’s just the nature of mind puzzles. As usual for the House, the event has incredibly cool aesthetics. This game is definitely a must-play for puzzle nerds, and is worth checking out for anyone whose interest is piqued by the premise.
The Last Defender - Conor McShane and Leslie Hull, ChicagoStageStandard.com 2/1/16 - "The House Theatre's The Last Defender is a hard show to review, since it really isn't a show, per se, at least in the traditional sense. Billed as a “room escape,” a relatively new, puzzle-based form of entertainment that's been popping up a lot lately, your enjoyment of it relies entirely on what you are willing to put into it, and what kind of people make up your team.
Conceived by House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, with puzzle designs by Sandor Weisz and art direction by Chris Burnham, the production places you in the role of a Defender, some sort of elite team member whose goal is to prevent nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. When you arrive, you are outfitted with a bright orange jumpsuit—which could prove problematic for people of size, as the jumpsuits are indeed not one size fits all, which is an oversight that should probably be corrected before the wrong Defender gets defensive. You also get a special belt and a code name, and are assigned to a certain unit. When nuclear war becomes imminent, you must work together with your fellow players to solve puzzles and disarm missiles; that is, if you want to disarm. You also have the option to destruct, which no doubt leads to a different playing experience (our group chose to disarm). It is the sort of game which would certainly be different each time, depending on who is playing and which decisions they make.These sorts of cooperative games are as fascinating, at least to these reviewers, as a social experiment as much as a team-building exercise. The way a person behaves in this kind of scenario can tell you a lot about them. For example, we had one person declare herself a leader pretty much from the get-go, barking orders and commanding the room, while others broke off into smaller groups to perform different tasks, or simply chose to work alone. While it is probably inevitable that some brave soul would assert him or herself in de-facto command, it did manage to detract somewhat from the enjoyment of the game to be bossed around in such a way, though this is not the fault of the game's creators.
Since there really isn't much of an overall theme to analyze or a story to chew on, it falls to the technical and organizational aspects to carry the experience, and they certainly deliver. The game is a marvel of planning and design, and special kudos must go to the stage manager, Brian DesGranges, and the production crew for pulling off a relatively seamless experience (one seeming malfunction with an in-game safe was quickly resolved). Burnham's art direction, along with the scenic design by Lee Keenan, is an appealing mix of late-80s graphics and low-budget sci fi silliness, particularly involving a wall of gadgetry which these reviewers attempted unsuccessfully to manage. Melissa Torchia's costumes are effective as well—helpful crew members outfitted in black polygonal animal masks provide silent hints throughout the game, which makes certain difficult aspects much easier to figure out. A brief bit of pre-filmed exposition nails the look of cheesy, corporate-mandated training videos, complete with stilted faux-candid acting. Overall, the look and feel of the space is rendered in splendid, specific detail, to compliment the well-designed gameplay.
The puzzles themselves were challenging, but not so much so as to be impossible. Our group managed to solve almost all of them in the allotted time, with a couple being finished just as the clock hit zero (too late, I'm afraid; sorry, Chicago). Perhaps, if we had just a few more minutes of solving time, we could have saved our nation.
The Last Defender isn't the kind of experience you should choose if you're after a straightforward night at the theatre. But if you're open to a different kind of stage experience, and one that is still theatrical in its own way, then suit up, Defender".

With the "Last Defender" House Theatre puts on a Cold War puzzle room - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 2/9/16 - "The latest endeavor from the restless minds at the House Theatre of Chicago is not so much a show as a puzzle room, constructed in the basement of the Chopin Theatre. Therein, an audience with a maximum size of 16 attempts to save the world from nuclear annihilation.


This is no easy task.


So hard were the assignments — which include codes, Battleship game-like endeavors, jigsaw puzzles, marbles in tubes, levers, sequencing challenges, electrical connections, board games, computer programming, light engineering and heavy brain activity — that your humble and intellectually limited correspondent was moved to break his usual iron-clad, post-show silence. He injudiciously uttered "bit too hard" thereafter, based on his smart Thursday night group having failed utterly to stop the destruction of many large and densely populated American cities, resorting only in panic to the game's fail-safe device. This results in a kind of a not-very-satisfying draw involving mutually assured destruction. I am not sure if we really stopped the planet from vaporizing.


Your weak correspondent was however immediately assured that the "success rate" of groups attending "The Last Defender" to date has been around 20 percent, and thus "in line" with puzzle rooms around the country.
Wow. Tough field.

If you are the kind of person who salivates at the cruelty of Cards Against Humanity and loves the embrace of game as a verb, "The Last Defender" might well be your kind of show. It also might well make a few bucks for the House if they can tap into the corporate market, wherein businesses are ever-anxious to torture their employees with team-building, problem-solving exercises designed to boost levels of cooperative performance and raise levels of employee stress.

Watch out WhirlyBall! Be glad most MBA recruiters cannot find their way to the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street.


Since all 16 audience members are forced to interact and work together to solve the House puzzle — and yes, annoying natural leaders do emerge and group tactics are required — you do learn a thing or two about the theatergoers around you, clad, like you, in orange jumpsuits, which has the unintended effect of making you feel like you are a resident of Cook County Jail, albeit one with an unusually apocalyptic exercise routine.

"The Last Defender" (which has multiple performances during the weekends) was penned by artistic director Nathan Allen, with puzzle design by Sandor Weisz, software by Ben Wilhelm and art direction by the fine artist Chris Burnham. The environment is cool. As you walk through the installation you're followed by silent black rabbits (whose job is to help, you're told) and by a mysterious fellow with a laptop, whom you suspect is messing with you at every single moment.


The ambience of the affair is not so much hi-tech as retro — more "Space Invaders" than "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3." And the actual puzzles are mostly analog creations. It's all a great deal of fun.


I'd say the overall narrative needs a bit of work — it was never quite clear to me what were the how and whys of the various endings and their relative levels of catastrophe and political import. Those rabbits could get a bit more involved. The live-action component could be beefed up. And quite a few technical problems had yet to be solved at the final preview I attended — although "attended" is not really the right word for this show.


Still, "The Last Defender" certainly is a unique attraction among Chicago theaters of the moment. If you could pull together a big group for this 90-minute communal experience, you'll have an especially revealing time, and learn quite a bit more about your pals under pressure. Well, they were your pals going in ..."



The Last Defender - Dan Jakes, Chicago Reader
- "In hindsight, room-escape puzzles are such perfect combinations of storytelling, stagecraft, and giddy theater-school camaraderie that it’s astonishing one of Chicago’s immersive-design-focused companies like the House Theatre hasn’t created one sooner. Nathan Allen’s ambitious 90-minute experience puts four groups of four jumpsuit-clad players together to prevent catastrophe in a scenario inspired by retro video games: Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction. Sander Weisz’s elaborate puzzles are so fun and challenging that it’s easy to overlook how impressive the coordinated arcade consoles, projection screens, periscope viewers, dot matrix printers, fog machines, and live-action Spaceteam walls really are. It’s a logistical and technical achievement that will undoubtedly satisfy even the pickiest problem-solving nerd—here’s hoping these become a trend".



Four Stars - The Last Defender - Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 2/29/16 - "he House Theatre's Cold War room escape is an adrenaline-generating team-building exercise with strangers.After you and your 15 fellow recruits in the Defender program have suited up and been given your code names, you’re split into sub-teams. But the only competition in this wildly immersive experience is against the clock. All of you will have to work together the mutually assured destruction of the world outside this bunker in all-out nuclear war.


It’s hard to know exactly what to call the House Theatre’s latest, other than awesome. But what it really is is a high-design room-escape game. Working with Chicago puzzle designer Sandor Weisz and comics artist Chris Burnham, director Nathan Allen has crafted an incredibly smart and detailed Cold War-era environment that requires each of the teams to solve an initial set of puzzles at a retrofitted arcade-game console. From there, the proceedings get only more complex, and everyone has to work together (sometimes literally everyone at once) as you race to prevent a nuclear launch.

 

If anything, The Last Defender might be too smart. By the time I played, a few weeks into the run, one of the stagehands who give you silent guidance throughout play told us afterward that only one team had so far fully solved the puzzle; the 90-minute time limit allows about a dozen “performances” a week. (My team was not the one that saved the world.) Part of you wants to go back for another shot, but you also know it but you also know it wouldn’t quite be fair, or as fun, to return with any of the knowledge you gained the first time. Uniquely challenging and exhilarating, The Last Defender is exciting new territory for the House.


The Last Defender - Kevin Greene, NewCity Chicago - "There are two words that can make almost any regular theatergoer flinch: audience participation. The irony is unmistakable. In an art form that lives and dies on vulnerability, our threshold for discomfort is set squarely at the fourth wall. This intolerance is the theatrical equivalent of avoiding eye contact with the petitioners outside your gym. So it inspires great humility and even greater pleasure to report that the most enjoyable show currently playing in Chicago not only encourages participation but requires it. Mining a richly retro aesthetic, “The Last Defender” finds gobs of inspiration in Reagan-era propaganda. Fuzzy VHS recordings, 8-bit computer programs and orange jumpsuits à la Steve Zissou, laughable in the era of streaming HD video and Lululemon, are as natural here as hipster beards and fixed-gear bikes down the street in Wicker Park.

 

Yet, there’s more to this artistic decision than just poking fun at that most kitschy of decades. “The Last Defender” necessitates problem solving in analog formats via direct communication. In a time when even crosswords and Sudoku puzzles are being done on tablets and cellphones, running to and fro in the basement of the Chopin I felt as though I was unlocking a dusty part of my animal brain. An active part.

 

While the story part of this experience tends to get lost in the hubbub, House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, who wrote and directed this piece, has a mission that is loftier than mere entertainment. Anyone with passing familiarity with the House would well expect the high levels of design found here in spades thanks to Chris Burnham (art direction), Sandor Weisz (puzzles), Lee Keenan (scenic and lighting), Melissa Torchia (costume), Eleanor Kahn (properties) and many others.

 

Still, trusting one’s ensemble is one thing, trusting one’s audience is quite another. House Theatre of Chicago is responsible for some of the least-pretentious high art in our city. There is real and well-deserved affection for this company that goes beyond niche. Like a spring-loaded door on the other side of which is the key to saving the world, they release something in us. So come play. The world needs you, defender".

 


The Last Defender - Jacob Davis, ChicagoStageStandard.com - "18:30: I arrive early to the downstairs Chopin to take over my task as last defender of the world. The command center is still being re-set from the previous last defenders’ shift. I am issued my identification card, and page through my program of Nabucco while awaiting the arrival of the rest of my team-mates. I am in the communications division.

 


19:00: Orientation begins. Our task is to monitor Soviet nuclear activities, and to save the world, destroy it, or reach some kind of compromise. We are told that saving the world is the most difficult outcome to achieve. Assisting us in solving puzzles will be silent crew members in black bunny masks, and one in a black bear mask. Teamwork will be crucial, so we are reminded to share information, and defer to those who display natural leadership. Tight lips sink ships.

 

19:05: We enter the locker-room to change into our jumpsuits. The lockers have combination locks. In our first exercise in teamwork, we share our recollections of facing this problem in school, and succeed, after some struggle, in opening our lockers. Within are our jumpsuits (we supplied our sizes in an emailed form ahead of time), belts, and quarters for operating our work consoles. Our defender names are written on our uniforms. I am Defender Countdown. The other member of the communications division also returned his guest ticket, so there were only two of us. I think he was called Defender Strikethrough. Normally there are sixteen team members, but we were down two.

 

19:10: We take an elevator to our deep underground base. Within is a warning that Zelda, the artificial intelligence in charge of managing the nuclear missiles, tends to malfunction a lot and supply dubious wisdom. There is a key for accessing the nuclear override interface, which we entrust to Defender Strikethrough, thinking him the most competent. 19:20: Inside the main base, we view a tutorial video instructing us on the tenets of Mutually Assured Destruction. Our job is to stay wary in case the Soviets launch missiles at us. If Zelda informs us they have, we are to contact Central Systems Command to verify the threat. If verified, we are to allow the counterstrike to launch automatically. If not, we will have to override the return strike. We are also presented with our orders of the day. I am tasked with going to the library in the corner, and examining the encyclopedia.

 

19:30: I determine that the encyclopedia is a collection of video cassettes with names of people and cities on them. I assume this will be important to determining a pattern-puzzle later. While I examine the cassettes, an alarm goes off, telling us that the Soviets have launched their missiles. A sixty minute timer appears on the main screen, telling us we have until it runs out before Zelda launches the counterstrike. The ghost bunnies usher us to our consoles so we can attempt to reach Central Systems Command. Our first task is to figure out which city Central Systems Command is located in.

 

19:35: Defender Strikethrough and I share ideas and information about how to reach Washington. Tight lips sink ships. One of the ghost bunnies points out that while we have been sharing ideas, we neglected to read the instructions directly in front of us. We contact Washington, and find that the phone menu has been encoded. While we work on decoding the phone menu so we can tell whether or not we are under attack, Zelda lists American cities that have been wiped out, at the rate of one about every ten seconds.

 

19:39: We reach Central Systems Command and are put on hold.

 

19:40: We ascertain that the purported Soviet strike is a computer error. The ghost bunnies guide us through figuring out how to access the override module. It involves spelling out “denuclearization” with only a sign with the word “denuclearization” written on it to guide us.

 

19:50: We succeed in spelling “denuclearization” despite the absence of two team-mates, and access the override console. There are ten missiles in the Chicago base which will launch in forty minutes, and we have to disable each one individually by plugging in certain letter-number combinations. To obtain these combinations, we have to solve the puzzles throughout the room. Delegation is required. Some team members who happen to be professional actors step into the role of leadership, and dispatch us to stations. I have noticed that often when a group of people are confused and irresolute, actors will take charge. I think this is because they are able to project their voices and are accustomed to making strong character choices. As a critic, I was concerned that we had not given sufficient debate to whether we wished to prevent a nuclear war or cause one, but I am less accustomed to being inspirational or co-operative.

 

20:00: A ghost-bunny holds my hand while I attempt to figure out the secret of the cassettes. Following our ghost-bunnies’ non-verbal urging to provide help to others, nobody actually ends up at the station they were delegated. Instead, we flit around, solving parts of mind puzzles, or attempting to figure out what the puzzles are. There are ones involving weights, the game battleship, the cassettes, dots on pillars, laser dots, and bunkbeds, among other things. I end up with a box which, by its label, contains a tactile puzzle. I sit despondent and perplexed, sifting through the box’s contents until a ghost-bunny takes pity on me, and brings over help.

20:10: My team-mates find an instructional manual in the box, which I somehow overlooked. I resign the tactile challenge, and join the group working on the cassettes to “help.”

 

20:15: I join the group working on electrical paths and “help.”

 

20: 20: I join the group working on dots and “help.”

 

20:25: The group working on the tactile puzzle realize that they need my help to identify chess pieces and set up the game board. Using my unique skill set, we are able to complete the puzzle, obtain the code, and disable a missile. Each of us feels like a valued member of the team, and that we have gained insights into co-operation and communication. The ghost-bunnies are proud of us.

 

20:29: With less than a minute to go, nobody has any idea how to solve the last puzzle. One of our leaders decides we should blow ourselves and the Chicago area up to disable the last missile, and those of us nearby meekly hand over our key cards in deference to the loud voice. We also collect key cards from the team-members who were distracted and don’t know what they are agreeing to, but understand we need their cards for something important. I feel that we have gained insight into how mass suicides happen. The ghost-bunnies brace for impact.

 

20:30: The world is saved, at the cost of Chicago. Following the conclusion of the game, we are told the secret of the final puzzle, and I still don’t understand it. Apparently, it is very rare for anybody to succeed in obtaining peace without casualties. Our team came the closest one can to achieving the best outcome without actually achieving it. We are invited back to play the game again.

 

Certainly, there was a huge amount I didn’t see. There were some puzzles I didn’t touch at all, and some I wasn’t even aware of because I mostly kept to one side of the room. On the other hand, it is possible for a person who already knows how most puzzles and the override console work to push their way through without sticking to the script. That might not be a bad thing; given the interactive nature of this kind of story-telling, more of a role-playing element would have been welcome. New players are likely to spend much of the ninety minutes too confused to do anything but what they are told.

 

Those who were most active in taking command and matching the game’s rapid pace seemed to have had the most fun, and nostalgia for eighties titles like War Games seemed to help a lot, too. The only one of Sandor Weisz’s puzzles I saw through from start to finish looks ridiculously easy in retrospect, and the difficulty was created mostly by the chaotic environment of the room. But it may have been unique in that regard, or maybe that’s just the nature of mind puzzles. As usual for the House, the event has incredibly cool aesthetics. This game is definitely a must-play for puzzle nerds, and is worth checking out for anyone whose interest is piqued by the premise.


The Last Defender - Conor McShane and Leslie Hull, ChicagoStageStandard.com 2/1/16 - "The House Theatre's The Last Defender is a hard show to review, since it really isn't a show, per se, at least in the traditional sense. Billed as a “room escape,” a relatively new, puzzle-based form of entertainment that's been popping up a lot lately, your enjoyment of it relies entirely on what you are willing to put into it, and what kind of people make up your team.

 

Conceived by House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen, with puzzle designs by Sandor Weisz and art direction by Chris Burnham, the production places you in the role of a Defender, some sort of elite team member whose goal is to prevent nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. When you arrive, you are outfitted with a bright orange jumpsuit—which could prove problematic for people of size, as the jumpsuits are indeed not one size fits all, which is an oversight that should probably be corrected before the wrong Defender gets defensive. You also get a special belt and a code name, and are assigned to a certain unit. When nuclear war becomes imminent, you must work together with your fellow players to solve puzzles and disarm missiles; that is, if you want to disarm. You also have the option to destruct, which no doubt leads to a different playing experience (our group chose to disarm). It is the sort of game which would certainly be different each time, depending on who is playing and which decisions they make.These sorts of cooperative games are as fascinating, at least to these reviewers, as a social experiment as much as a team-building exercise. The way a person behaves in this kind of scenario can tell you a lot about them. For example, we had one person declare herself a leader pretty much from the get-go, barking orders and commanding the room, while others broke off into smaller groups to perform different tasks, or simply chose to work alone. While it is probably inevitable that some brave soul would assert him or herself in de-facto command, it did manage to detract somewhat from the enjoyment of the game to be bossed around in such a way, though this is not the fault of the game's creators.

 

Since there really isn't much of an overall theme to analyze or a story to chew on, it falls to the technical and organizational aspects to carry the experience, and they certainly deliver. The game is a marvel of planning and design, and special kudos must go to the stage manager, Brian DesGranges, and the production crew for pulling off a relatively seamless experience (one seeming malfunction with an in-game safe was quickly resolved). Burnham's art direction, along with the scenic design by Lee Keenan, is an appealing mix of late-80s graphics and low-budget sci fi silliness, particularly involving a wall of gadgetry which these reviewers attempted unsuccessfully to manage. Melissa Torchia's costumes are effective as well—helpful crew members outfitted in black polygonal animal masks provide silent hints throughout the game, which makes certain difficult aspects much easier to figure out. A brief bit of pre-filmed exposition nails the look of cheesy, corporate-mandated training videos, complete with stilted faux-candid acting. Overall, the look and feel of the space is rendered in splendid, specific detail, to compliment the well-designed gameplay.

 

The puzzles themselves were challenging, but not so much so as to be impossible. Our group managed to solve almost all of them in the allotted time, with a couple being finished just as the clock hit zero (too late, I'm afraid; sorry, Chicago). Perhaps, if we had just a few more minutes of solving time, we could have saved our nation.

 

The Last Defender isn't the kind of experience you should choose if you're after a straightforward night at the theatre. But if you're open to a different kind of stage experience, and one that is still theatrical in its own way, then suit up, Defender".


Author
Nathan Allen

Director
Nathan Allen

Performers
Dr. Truman Heston - Christopher Hainsworth; MADAI - Brenda Barrie; Zelda - Paige Collins

Production
Art Director Chris Burnham; Puzzle Design Sandor Weisz; Scenic & Light Design Lee Keenan; Costume Design Melissa Torchia; Sound Design Joshua Horvath; Sound Design Sarah Espinoza; Video Design Lucas Merino; Properties Design Eleanor Kahn; Software Architect Ben Wilhelm; Stage Manager Brian DesGranges

Tags: Theater, American, 2016