Have you ever gone on a really incredible trip and not wanted to tell your friends about it? Neither have I, and yet this is the predicament I find myself in with Empire Travel Agency, a surreal, site-specific journey through the southwest corner of Manhattan. It turns out to be quite an exotic place, crawling with mysterious, unreliable characters with murky agendas; a half-deserted labyrinth of treachery and conspiracy, where powerful drugs and unidentified booze are readily available, and high-stakes gambling dens lure thrill-seekers to risk their life fortune inside spooky yurts. But to tell you about it would ruin the element of surprise that's so integral to the experience.
Woodshed Collective, the exceptional theater company that created the piece, has made it their mission to upend the conventional notion of theater, obliterating the boundaries between spectator and performer, and turning public spaces into intimate vortexes of wonder. One of the best shows I've ever seen in NYC was their spellbinding 2009 adaptation of Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, which unfolded in controlled chaos aboard a rusty old boat docked on the Hudson River. With Empire Travel Agency, they've produced another enthralling site-specific adventure that fully immerses you into a world of mystery and suspense, often transforming ordinary city street corners into extraordinary locales simply through the power of collective imagination.
Performed with a cast of about 20 (supported by a production team of 75 people) the experience begins at desolate street corner down in the financial district, where you and a handful of other participants loiter by a pay phone until it rings. It begins! Whoever answers has the pleasure of speaking with the eccentric Rhonda, who is ostensibly a travel agent with details about your forthcoming journey, but, like everything else in Empire Travel Agency, turns out to be much more than she appears to be on the surface.
The story is murky and has the texture of a dream, like strange voices and supernatural lights perceived through an eerie fog. But a twisty narrative comes together just enough to keep you hooked as it gradually unfolds over the course of two and a half hours in a variety of Manhattan's nooks and crannies. The acting is idiosyncratic and impeccable, and the ensemble keeps everything speeding forward into curiouser and curiouser situations. In a way it never stops—certain New York City locations are now, for me, permanently imbued with magic.
That's all I'm telling you, and I fear it's almost too much already. But if you're still undecided, feel free to click through on some of the photos to get a sense of what's in store if you manage to take the trip. Tickets are free, but they sold out far in advance, so Woodshed Collective has been selling a small number as part of a fundraiser for the company. (It's called a "luxury ticket," and is described as "a tax deductible donation to keep NYC immersive theater accessible.") There is a waitlist, and sometimes there are cancellations, so follow their Facebook closely for announcements from Rhonda.
Empire Travel Agency continues through September 27th. Do whatever you need to do to get on board.