Review: H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum Presents: ‘The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions From the Perisphere’

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In the less than two years since it was founded, Submersive Productions (“Submersive”) has established so positive a reputation that tickets to many performances of its new immersive theater experience, H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere (“Musaeum”) were sold out well in advance of opening night. Productions like award-winning The Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe and Plunge have set expectations sky high, but Submersive delivers. And, in response to the outstanding response Musaeum has received, the company has just extended its run until May 7th.

Darling Marionettes. Photo by Glenn Ricci.

Reviewing immersive theater is challenging. When the physical environment is a character in the show, it feels like anything I say about the experience will be a spoiler. And with the multiple-storylined, choose-your-own-adventure nature of Musaeum, it gets particularly tricky. I could write you a play-by-play of my enjoyable evening at Submersive’s latest offering, but when you go to the show, you are likely to have a very different experience. If I were to go again, I would have a different experience.

Submersive likens Musaeum to “a Belle Époque-style cabinet of wonder.” I cannot think of a more accurate description. The collaborative artworks company has brought together an exceptionally talented group of more than 20 Baltimore artists, actors, puppeteers, craftspeople, technicians and consultants to transform every nook and cranny of the historic Peale Museum.

And I do mean transform. The Peale, an 1814 property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest purpose-built museum building in the United States. Closed for the past 20 years, it has only recently become available for special events. The building has not only been vacant for two decades, but empty. The furniture, cabinets, and display cases – in addition to every exhibit in the 10,000-square foot museum – have all been crafted by Submersive’s team.

Entering the museum, I was greeted by a charming concierge (Josh Aterovis) and invited to select an identity from a collection of fancy name plates on ribbon lanyards. I chose Ms. Gertrude Lanvale, Esq. I lost my husband, who would spend the evening as Sir Roderick Robert Crispin-Chisholm, for the first of several times at that point. He’d been stopped by the mysterious grounds keeper, GK (Francisco Benavides), for a private chat.

David Brasington, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Lisi Stoessel. Photo by Glenn Ricci.

I should point out, for those afraid that immersive theater is somehow sneak-attack theater, that the cast of Musaeum has a good sense of whether a person is open to being engaged individually or not. My husband has a visible openness to this sort of interaction, which is likely why he was approached several times for private convos. I, on the other hand, tend to radiate a vibe that politely (I hope) suggests that strangers please keep their distance. I honestly would have been fine being approached, but I didn’t go out of my way to make eye contact, etc. as I was so fixated on examining all the exhibits and the public interactions of the characters.

As Submersive’s Co-Artistic Director Glenn Ricci (who also serves as Musaeum’s Co-Producer, Co-Director, Sound Designer and Video magician) will tell you, “Everyone’s experience [at Musaeum] is correct.” It worked out especially well for me and Sir Crispin-Chisholm, as we could compare notes and put together more pieces of the intertwined storylines than we could have if we’d been side by side all night.

In addition to the concierge desk – where you can free your arms by checking coats and bags – the first floor of the museum houses a welcome area, a brief introductory film, some items from the museum’s “general collections” and a gift shop. The gift shop is full of small wonders and souvenirs from New Galapagos, and is staffed by knowledgeable clerks (Emily Hall and Martha Robichaud).

After a ceremonial welcome from the Concierge and the other-worldly Curators (Lisi Stoessel and David Brasington), we were permitted upstairs to explore. Approximately half of the second floor is occupied by the stately, starlit Grand Hall, where cabinet after cabinet of artifacts from H.T. Darling’s expeditions are housed. Rock samples, taxidermied animals, living creatures, and more fill the walls of this hall, leaving a ballroom-sized space at center for presentations and various cast interactions. Among my favorite New Galapagan relics are the Bagus Blade – because it made me aware of the existence of sloth wolves, a species it is apparently very good at slaying, the Mummified Manfish, and the Sapphire Decandria Traps, which are a beautiful blue flower that would surely add to the allure – and danger –  of any garden.

Also featured on the second floor are two exhibition rooms. One has been made into a recreation of New Galapagos’ cave-like Underland, the alien sounds of the planet resounding inside; the other represents the Overland, the planet’s brutal surface.

I could tell already that there was way more going on in the museum than I could possibly experience in one night. I consulted the schedule posted atop the grand staircase to see if there was some planned programming that I didn’t want to miss. Among the officially-scheduled presentations are “An Introduction to the Topography of New Galapagos” and “Camouflage Techniques of Overland Fauna.” I also caught, completely by chance, a dramatic reenactment led by Hieronymus T. Darling himself (Sarah Olmsted Thomas), a mesmerizing ceremony by the lovely Aku Maxilla (Trustina Sabah), and a fascinating talk by Darling’s right-hand man, the erudite Dr. Percy Warner (Alex Vernon).

The upper two floors also contain rewards for the curious. Be sure to take in as much of the museum as you can. Clear signs mark any area that is off-limits. If you go astray, I’m sure the museum guards (Josh Aterovis, Caitlin Bouxsein, E’Tona Ford, and Brad Norris) will let you know.

Creating an entire world like New Galapagos and H.T Darling’s Musaeum is a challenging task only made possible through the collaboration of a tirelessly dedicated team of creatives. In addition to the cast members noted above, the Herculean task was borne by the following artists: Musaeum was conceived by Submersive Artistic Associate (and 2017 Baker Artist Award Finalist!) Lisi Stoessel. It is being produced by Submersive Productions’ Artistic Directors Ursula Marcum and Glenn Ricci and directed by Lisi Stoessel, Susan Stroupe, and Glenn Ricci. The lovely space-age-meets-golden-age costumes were designed by Stephanie Parks, who was assisted by Ben Kress. Sound design and video are courtesy of Glenn Ricci and set design is by the immensely imaginative Lisi Stoessel. Lighting Designer James Johnson was up to the task of creating museum-style lighting for all the exhibits as well as theatrical lighting for the more performative parts. Ursula Marcum is the Prop Master and a puppeteer, along with Jess Rassp. Contributing artists include Laure Drogoul, Jonathan Latiano, Robert Marbury, and James Taylor. The huge job of fabrication and set dressing was completed by Samantha Kuczynski, Alessandra Torres, Francisco Benavides, Ursula Marcum, Jess Rassp, and Alex Vernon. The movement coach is Dody DiSanto. Brook Tobey and Jack Higgins are the builders. It was all kept moving by Stage Manager Brad Norris and Assistant Stage Manager E’Tona Ford, and Cassandra Miller made sure we all knew about it.

Alex Vernon and Francisco Benavides. Photo by Glenn Ricci.

Good theater makes you feel something; gives you something to talk about on the ride home. By exhibiting the exotic collection, as well as offering a peek at how the collection was acquired, Musaeum leaves you with some food for thought. Along with being a fascinating theatrical experience, it raises questions about the “treasures of New Galapagos” installation and its provenance. Taking objects and creatures from their natural habitats to display behind glass or in cages – is it preservation or plunder? Conservation or conquest? Education or exploitation?

Submersive Productions has outdone itself with its new production, H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere. Drawing on myriad arts and disciplines – performance, movement, video, lights, objects, interactive sets, exceptional puppetry and an original soundtrack – it is a fully immersive experience that has something to dazzle all the senses. True to its mission to “activate unused, underused or unusual spaces in Baltimore,” Submersive has made the Peale Museum come alive with one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of the year.

Thank your stars that the company has been able to extend its run until May 7 and hurry to your computer to get your tickets. With people wanting to experience Musaeum multiple times to learn more and more of its secrets, even with the extension tickets are going to go fast.

Running Time: It’s immersive theater. My performance ran two hours; your mileage may vary.

H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere plays through May 7, 2017, at Submersive Productions, playing at the Peale Museum – 225 North Holliday Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

ACCESSIBILITY: From Submersive Theatre – Making the most of your experience will require you to ascend and descend at least two staircases (and more if you choose). Some amount of standing and light walking will also be necessary. Seating and gentle guidance will be available throughout the space for those who may require it. We expect the experience to last about two hours from the posted start time. Beverages and snacks will be available (donations appreciated). Restrooms will be accessible throughout the experience. Coat racks and safe storage for bags will also be available.

On-street parking is available for free (after 6 PM Thursday and Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday) on the block around the building. The curb in front of The Peale should always be open for easy pick-ups and drop offs. There are also a number of parking garages just a block or two away, including the open lot just one block north of the Peale – $5 evenings and weekend rate.

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