HOGTOWN, an ambitious immersive theatre experience, explores Toronto’s seedy past
Before Toronto was the 6ix it was Hogtown. HOGTOWN is also the name a new immersive theatre experience; a period political drama mixed with a boozy party that invites you to take a trip back to the Prohibition era to explore Toronto’s seedy underbelly while drawing many parallels to the city of today.
HOGTOWN was inspired by Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, the granddaddy of immersive theatre shows, but differs in a few key ways. The former is a mostly wordless, dance-based performance adapted from recognizable source material (Shakespeare’s Macbeth), the latter attempts an immersive show with a densely-packed script, loosely based on real-life historical events and features dialogue highlighted by musical performances.
HOGTOWN’s creators, Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath, have crafted a show with multiple intersecting storylines taking place simultaneously throughout three floors of performance space in and around the historic Campbell House.
First of all, I love that this show is unabashedly about Toronto and features some of the city’s real-life historical figures which makes it perfect for visitors and Torontonians alike.
HOGTOWN takes place on the eve of the 1926 municipal election and the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) and rival Sam McBride (David Rosser), have come to Campbell House, to meet with union leader Bob Delacourt (David Keeley) in order to broker a deal for his support and hence win the election.
The mechanics of the show are quite clever. For the first half, the audience is divided into three groups and each is led to a different area of the house and subsequently ushered into a series of rooms for the initial scenes that set up the show’s plot lines and allow audience members to meet the key characters.
At around the half-way mark, the fun really begins and audience members are let loose and given free reign to explore the property at will following whichever characters and picking up whichever story threads that most appeal to them.
Throughout the property you’ll encounter a cast of about 30 performers playing a variety of colourful, Jazz Age characters from bootleggers and gangsters in the illegal gambling den, to showgirls and jazz musicians in the speakeasy where you can stop by the bar for a drink. But if you do choose to imbibe, don’t catch the eye of the members of the Toronto Temperance League, you won’t be able to miss them even if you tried.
I thought the script was really cleverly executed. The election storyline is full of surprising twists and political intrigue and it provides the backbone for the proceedings. The other characters have story arcs that spiral around the central election plot. Some plot lines are funny others have soap opera-level melodrama. And everything manages to get tied up neatly in the finale scene. I’m hugely impressed by what this team has been able to accomplish.
With the staggering number of characters and story threads happening at the same time you won’t be able to see everything in one viewing of the show which can lead to some major FOMO at times but if you follow the characters or storylines that interest you the most, you’ll end up with a unique and satisfying experience.
Campbell House itself is a character in the show and it’s the perfect space for this site-specific show. There are likely limitations working in a historical property but I would have liked to see more attention to detail in the production design, particularly in the lighting and sound design to enhance the immersive quality of the experience.
At times crowds seem to congregate around key scenes with the speakeasy and illegal gambling den in the basement being particularly popular locations. But some of my favourite moments in the show happened when I chose to move away from the crowd and ended up stumbling upon scenes where I was the sole audience member. Moments where the actors are performing exclusively for you are a real treat.
If you follow municipal politics, if you’re a history buff, or if you just want to revel in the flappers, jazz and gin of the roaring twenties, this show is for you. HOGTOWN is a unique immersive experience that’s incredibly ambitious and also a lot of fun. It makes for a great night out and I’d love to go back to see it again to catch some of the parts I missed.
- HOGTOWN: The Immersive Experience is playing at The Campbell House Museum (160 Queen Street West) through August 28, 2016
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $45
- Tickets are available online at hogtownexperience.com/tickets
Photo of Aisha Jarvis and Laura Larson by Joseph Hammond