Review: ‘Altar Ego’ by Submersive Productions

Submersive Productions offers an intimate immersive theater experience at Baltimore's Peale Center.

Readers of DC Metro Theater Arts who are District-based are likely already familiar with immersive theater. Companies like TBD Immersive have recently begun presenting in nontraditional spaces, devising new works for which the story is of its location, not just in it, and the same is true of their audiences. The model is richly attractive to adventurous patrons and DIY-minded artists alike.

The Institute of Visionary History and the Archives of the Deep Now Installation at the Peale Center. Photo courtesy of Submersive Productions.

In Baltimore, Submersive Productions have produced immersive theater productions around town since 2015, their collaborative works appearing in places like the Baltimore War Memorial and now, The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. 

The wonderfully small Peale Center museum is home to Submersive’s current offering, The Institute of Visionary History and the Archives of the Deep Now: Altar Ego. This mouthful of a title describes the third part of a series of related but self-contained works. Each episode explores layers of existence throughout time and tackles crucial questions such as “how does one prevent catastrophe?” 

In Altar Ego, we are “invited to a unique house party to learn about our Vietnamese American neighbor, and to explore the boundaries between home and not home.” The character of the neighbor – Kelly – is performed by Kim Le. 

As Kelly’s guests, we are “researchers,” not audience; we are there to perform a group experiment involving the creation of an altar to honor ancestors. There are only five of us in the space (six, including our gracious host), and we’re all kept quite busy interacting with a fantastical wall of gizmos while Kelly frantically copes with interruptions from outside. 

Kim Le. Photo courtesy of Submersive Productions.

Le created Altar Ego, along with Josh Aterovis, Susan Stroupe, and Submersive’s Artistic Directors Ursula Marcum and Glenn Ricci. As Kelly, Le is both forceful and engaging. She connects individually with her guests and draws us into her universe with a sense of quiet power that lies just beneath a frazzled, exuberant surface.

As producers, Submersive eschews some traditional roles and functions of the theater. Altar Ego has no director and no stage manager, and doesn’t want for them. It does have an “induction team” (Mika Nakano and Elizabeth Ung) and a “greeter” (Cydney Cohn) who are responsible for guiding our journey into and through the experience. Co-creator Marcum operates the wall of gizmos, while Ricci’s lighting and sound designs fill the space with a character unto themselves. Kelly’s house party takes place in an amazing world which demands and rewards our attention.

It certainly bears repeating that the audience for each performance is limited to five. Several shows are presented each day, at close intervals, and the flow of operations presents some wonderfully theatrical moments which we won’t spoil by describing here. Suffice it to say, though, that tickets are scarce so get them while you can.

Another of Submersive’s projects, Project P.S., will appear next month before the Peale Center is shuttered for renovations and Submersive Productions takes its work elsewhere.

Running Time: Varies depending on the audience, roughly 60 minutes.

The Institute of Visionary History and the Archives of the Deep Now: Altar Ego by Submersive Productions appears through July 21 at The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture – 225 Holliday Street, Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets email info@submersiveproductions.com or purchase online.

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