Dungeon drag: Role-play show ‘Twenty-Sided Tavern’ is too shallow to be immersive

Neither fantasy nor comedy nor even a game, it’s a series of repetitive, one-note jokes told by one-dimensional characters, interspersed with meaningless audience interaction.

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Carlina Parker (foreground) in “The Twenty-Sided Tavern” with game creators Sarah Davis Reynolds and David Andrew Greener Laws (behind the bar).

Carlina Parker (foreground) in “The Twenty-Sided Tavern” with game creators Sarah Davis Reynolds and David Andrew Greener Laws (behind the bar).

©Amy Boyle Photography

The energy in the Broadway Playhouse was electric on opening night of “The Twenty-Sided Tavern,” an interactive, phones-on, live-action, role-play version of a board game not dissimilar to “Dungeons & Dragons.”

The Mag Mile theater lobby buzzed with marvelously turned-out fantasy characters — women sprouting ram horns from their temples, pixies with elfin ears, mysteriously cloaked warriors and warlocks and all manner of crowns and gowns worthy of a madrigal dinner runway.

The joy in the room was palpable and infectious, whether you came to “Tavern” as a novice at live-action role play or (per the program) “a level 16 Circle of the Seas paladin with a maxed out charisma and a +1 Vorpal Blade.”

Then, the show started.

“The Twenty-Sided Tavern” could work as a brief comedy sketch or an improv class warmup. But “Tavern” — created by David Andrew Greener Laws (who goes by DAGL), Sarah Davis Reynolds (also credited with game design) and Dave Carpenter — cannot sustain a two-hour show.

‘The Twenty-Sided Tavern’

Twenty-Sided Tavern

‘The Twenty-Sided Tavern’

When: Through Jan. 15

Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.

Tickets: $40-$85

Info: www.BroadwayinChicago.com


“Tavern” is mildly intriguing for its first moments. But it quickly becomes clear there will be no characters any deeper than a Parcheesi piece that has been hit by a large freight train.

The plot involves a series of random events with a foregone conclusion that doesn’t change no matter how much techno-interaction (or shots of Malort; this is also a drinking game) DAGL stuffs into his frantic script.

The interaction relies primarily on a QR code that ticket-holders scan prior to the show. That allows them to vote on questions from DAGL and his team. The votes determine everything from the traits of characters to the adventures that await them on their quest to find a magical crystal cauldron.

Sometimes, instead of voting, audience members are asked to repeatedly tap their phones, their collective speed determining, for example, how long the Rogue will have to do pushups.

The tech is not impeccable. Both people sitting next to me had issues with voting because their screens wouldn’t update. The adult on one side handled it well, the kid on the other side not so much.

There’s also a manufactured team aspect overseen by the Gamemaster — DAGL, who explains he can’t be called “dungeon master” because that title is copyrighted. The audience is split into three groups determined by a colored sticker in their programs. Blue is team Mage (led by Jack Corcoran through Dec. 5, Travis Klemm Dec. 5-Jan. 15), who is known for being good at manipulation and magic. Green is team Rogue (Madelyn Murphy, Eryn Barnes after Dec. 5), known for seducing and sneaking. Red is team Fighter (Carlina Parker, R. Alex Murray after Dec. 5), best at punching and pummeling. Each team is egged on by its color-coded leader, encouraged to hoot and holler and click and tap like it’s the final moments of the 2016 World Series.

Voting tallies are projected live on three screens that bank the stage.

And the action that isn’t prompted by audience voting is determined by the roll of a 20-sided die.

For all the clamor it induces, “The Twenty-Sided Tavern” isn’t a drama or a fantasy or a comedy or even a game. It’s a series of repetitive, one-note jokes told by one-dimensional characters, interspersed with meaningless audience interaction that ultimately adds up to a nothing-burger of a plot salad.

Cast members repeatedly stop the action to crack up at their own jokes.

And the action — there are fights and fisticuffs and pratfalls and the kinds of improv you can find in a Second City 101 classroom — is repeatedly stalled for endless rolls of the dice. I lost track of how many times the screens looming above the actors defaulted to showing closeups of dice rolls.

Those screens (projection design by Caite Hevner) also do the heavy lifting in Katie McGeorge’s set, which is centered on the titular tavern. As Tavern Keeper, Reynolds manipulates the screens from behind the bar. Whether the players are in an observatory, a magic lair or traipsing over mountains, the projected images are about as dynamic as a PowerPoint demonstration.

The thrall of live-action role play lies in players becoming fully immersed in the otherworlds of fantasy.

But, instead of immersion, “Twenty-Sided” participants are reduced to spending the evening tapping on their phone screens while the real players run around on stage. Or, when the tech fails, simply staring at a frozen screen.

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