Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it has become increasingly clear that theater as we know it will not be returning for some time. On the heels of last week’s heartbreaking yet expected announcement that Broadway will remain shuttered through at least May 2021, the pressure is on for artists and theaters to innovate and adapt. The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles achieved great success with their first virtual “Geffen Stayhouse” production of The Present, an interactive magic show presented via Zoom that has sold out over five months of performances. Its follow-up is Inside the Box, which utilizes the same virtual audience participation model for an experience that centers around a popular quarantine hobby—puzzles.
Written and performed by David Kwong, a magician and one of the constructors of the New York Times crossword, the fun of Inside the Box begins a few days in advance when participants receive a puzzle packet via email. Access to a printer is required, and you’ll want to dive in early—there is a fun pre-show puzzle to solve, some basic arts and crafts in the form of cutting out some of the provided materials, and a list of three basic household items to gather. When it comes time for the performance, an energetic house manager admits guests one-by-one into the Zoom. One ticket covers as many people in your household as would like to watch and participate, and this kid-friendly show attracted a lot of families—at the performance I attended, there was even a dog.
The vast majority of the show requires the virtual audience, which consists of 24 households per performance, to work either individually or together to solve puzzles. The overall difficulty is moderate, and the types of games include anagrams, acrostics, and vocal riddles. Sometimes, a volunteer from the audience will be called upon to provide an answer and other times, everyone will have to work together by either holding various objects up to the camera or saying an assigned word out loud when called upon. Everyone will be asked to participate in at least a small way during the performance, and for this reason the pre-show check-in process involves an audio and video test for every audience member.
Kwong is charismatic and fun to watch—he was set to debut his one-man show The Enigmatist in person at the Geffen after a successful New York run last year, but it was postponed due to COVID-19. He keeps the 85-minute performance running smoothly, building to the most difficult puzzle of the evening, which requires combining knowledge from multiple prior exercises. As is inevitable with this kind of virtual show, there were occasional kinks—some groups failed to whisper when solving a puzzle in their home, occasionally revealing the answer prematurely, and one of the collaborative games that depends on everyone individually following a complicated series of steps did not go off without a hitch. But in a way, that’s part of the fun. Audience members were located all around the country, and the communal experience one typically has sitting inside a theater felt very much alive and well.
In comparison to The Present, Inside the Box has a less cohesive narrative structure, and as a result feels a bit more like an online game or trivia night than a theatrical performance. I also have to imagine very experienced puzzle aficionados might find the difficulty level a bit amateur, but it is still an undoubtedly fun way to spend an evening and support live performances in this difficult time. The title is intentionally ironic—while the idea for a Zoom puzzle show may seem to be “outside” the box, the audience is actually “inside” the Zoom boxes for which the show was conceived, and that visual format is utilized in very creative ways.
Inside the Box is currently scheduled to run through January 3, 2021. The running time is 85 minutes, no intermission, and a strong internet connection and printer access are required. As of publication of this review, all performances are sold out, but you can sign up here to be notified if more tickets (priced at $75 per household) go on sale.
For a list of theater organizations and non-profits you can support to help theaters and theater artists during this unprecedented time, click here.