The first of my eight-day excursion into the fast paced world of Fringe led me to the West bank’s Courtyard by Marriott Minneapolis Downtown. Past the lobby, I traversed the steps and began the process to see Second Skin by Playable Artworks.
Hotels like the Marriott hold all kinds of events: bar mitzvahs, wedding receptions, that beautiful moment when a sugar daddy meets their sugar baby, and now a show! But unlike those first two events, Second Skin doesn’t completely take place in the Marriott. After going up the steps of the lobby I didn’t find the entrance to a theater, but a two-person team eager and waiting with a cell phone and a bag. Under the ploy of a supernatural job interview, the interactive show has audience members take materials and move around West bank looking for a lost spirit with your would-be employer (who is also a spirit). While walking, you listen to your interviewer as she explains her work as a spiritual medium. You communicate with her via your own phone using an app created by the very company you’re interviewing with. This play feels like a choose your own adventure game crossed with a podcast. It’ a very delightful and engaging, if not a little underwhelming, experience.
Second Skin is a supernatural tale about the bizarre workings of a deceased medium and her work with the dead. If you’re at all a little frazzled by the idea of spirits and mediums don’t fret, this show is not frightening. The act of speaking to the dead is only used when making a choice in the story. By responding this way, the play creates the illusion that the audience is communicating with spirits. Interactions like this also occur by asking listeners to meditate with organic materials, write things down in a journal provided, and more. It’s all very fun and really draws the listener into the story; the only problem is engaging with a story like this doesn’t do much. When it comes to Second Skin it’s only about the journey because the destination leads you back to where you came from… the Marriott hotel.
The show is exclusively interesting in its operation. Playable Artworks has created something worthwhile with its interactive experience. Moving around the West bank and responding to all of the little prompts requires a level of concentration most shows wish they could create. There’s a self-analyzing mindfulness to it all. One moment you’re moving and hearing about your future employer’s family, the next your watering a plant with your insecurities--that last part isn’t a metaphor, you actually take a cup of water and water a plant. The back and forth of taking in information about the deceased and considering your own misgivings in life creates an emotional balance that feels almost cathartic. The issue is that this possible catharsis, while in theory incredibly powerful, gets bogged down by two unexpected problems: voice acting and theme.
Your employer, Erin Olson (played by Isabel Middleton-Watts), is the main voice you’re listening too; unfortunately, her voice acting could use some seasoning. Throughout the entire show, one can’t help but feel that Middleton-Watts is reading rather than speaking to you. The medium doesn’t help, but between emotional shifts and decisions on cadence and you can almost feel the pages turn between scenes. Middleton-Watts is not a bad actor, she performs remarkably, it’s just her voice is the only performative aspect. Unlike a traditional theater production, where she might be able to react both visually and audibly, she can only react audibly to choices she does not see. Because this is the case, we need more compared to a staged show.
The second problem is the attempt at fear. Earlier I said this play isn’t scary- in fact, I don’t believe the play is even attempting to be scary-- but it does try to use its supernatural themes to create an emotional reaction which is in the ballpark of fear. In this respect, it doesn’t hit the mark. The drama of a dead girl and a vengeful spirit doesn’t really mean much since you as the protagonist have zero agency; you are awash in the plot which makes for a dull hero. The lack of drama only leaves a small inkling of fear-- a serving far too small to enjoy. There’s a pang of regret in that, but you’ll get over it.
Second Skin is a charismatic and interesting ride that doesn’t say much-- a handful of spice for morsel too small. It’s exactly the kind of thing you want at the Fringe because a year from now, when they do it again, you’ll see how far the idea has come.