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Walking Shadow’s ‘Cabal’ is a puzzler of a play, and that’s a good thing

ALSO: Garrison Ceramics Collection Gallery Talk at the American Swedish Institute; Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at the American Craft Council; and more.

Tara Borman as Morgan Zakar in "Cabal."
Photo by Dan Norman

Not everyone loves solving puzzles or going to plays where you’re expected to engage with the cast and/or the audience. If that describes you, perhaps you’ve decided to pass on the Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s latest, “Cabal.”

You might want to give that another thought. Luckily, “Cabal,” which opened in July, is still running, at least through September. Several performances are already sold out and others are close. (Audience size is limited to 10.)

Latecomers to the party, we saw “Cabal” over the weekend. And though we’re not that keen on puzzles or audience participation, we had an altogether excellent adventure.

Billed as “a play with puzzles,” written by co-artistic director John Heimbuch, with puzzles by executive director David Pisa, Walking Shadow’s latest devised work pulls you into a story of magic and redemption.

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Entering the first room (“Cabal” takes place in several rooms, or “environments”), you’re immediately in another time and place. A fire flickers in a fireplace. Formal portraits line the walls. A record spins on a Victrola in one corner. You’re invited to introduce yourself to the other audience members – with your pronouns, please, a 21st-century touch. You meet two characters named Morgan Zakar and Jack Nimble. Their roles are performed by a rotating cast of four. We saw Tara Borman as Morgan and Sophina Saggau as Jack.

You soon learn that you, the audience, are initiates in a magical secret society, part of the Order of the White Stag. Something has gone terribly wrong and your help is needed right away. Initiates, your first puzzle awaits. Start looking for clues.

You were asked a few moments earlier to store your phones, purses and other “mundane devices” in lockers outside the first room. Now it’s time to suspend your disbelief and go with the flow. Even though it may feel a little silly at first, don’t resist. The cast is quite serious, and patient, and by now adept (no pun intended) at bringing an audience across the line.

At the performance we took part in, our audience of six strangers quickly started working together. Two had experience with escape rooms (live-action, team-based games where players work together to solve puzzles); four didn’t. The puzzles are fairly easy to grasp, but solving them can be tricky. Morgan and Jack offer subtle guidance, steering you back with a few words when you veer off course.

“Cabal” works because the play is interesting and holds your attention. (We swore no spoilers, so that’s all we’ll say about that.) And it works because the environments are so convincing, so beautifully designed and ornately detailed. There are special effects that make you want to laugh out loud with sheer pleasure. One room in particular must have taken weeks to prepare – gathering everything in it, arranging it just so.

It seems that everyone involved had fun with this. There’s a very long list of credits on the back of the program, which you won’t see until the end. At a glance, the production staff seems Guthrie-sized. There’s a couch restorer, a router fabricator, a gramophone modifier, an architect.

“Cabal” is a diversion and an immersive experience. The play is much more than a wrapper for the puzzles. Everything works together, which gives “Cabal” depth and staying power. Because of the play, we’re left with things to think about and question. How far can we go – how far should we go – to realize our ambitions? Are right and wrong constants, or do they change over time as humans (hopefully) evolve? When you solve a puzzle, you’re done. But when the puzzle is part of a story, and the story lingers, that’s theater.

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With “Cabal,” Walking Shadow has already broken its previous record for number of performances of a single production. (The theater’s history includes two prior plays with puzzles, “Saboteur” and “1926 Pleasant.” Like them, “Cabal” is a world premiere.) It plans to keep running the new play as long as possible.

“Cabal” takes place in the complex of buildings at 2010 East Hennepin in Minneapolis; you’ll get precise instructions when you buy your tickets. You won’t have to role-play or do anything embarrassing. The actors won’t put you on the spot. You will always be safe; no one will jump out at you, grab you or scare you. If you think you’re terrible at solving puzzles, you may surprise yourself. “Cabal” lasts about 90 minutes. FMI and tickets ($45).

The picks

Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
The ASI recently acquired 76 mid-century Scandinavian ceramic works from the collection of Sid and Terry Garrison. It’s on view now through Oct. 17.
Tonight (Wednesday, Sept. 4) at the American Swedish Institute: Garrison Ceramics Collection Gallery Talk. The ASI recently acquired 76 mid-century Scandinavian ceramic works from the collection of Sid and Terry Garrison. It’s on view now through Oct. 17. Stop by tonight to see it and listen in on the gallery talk. 6:30 p.m. Free with museum admission. As long as you’re there, be sure to see the magnificent “The Vikings Begin,” which closes Oct. 27.

Tonight and tomorrow at the Dakota: Pat Metheny Side-Eye. Winner of 20 Grammys and a 2018 NEA Jazz Master, guitarist Pat Metheny can do whatever he wants. For a time, he toured with his orchestrion, an orchestra of real acoustic instruments that played themselves, triggered by his guitar. Now he’s out with Side-Eye, which he describes as “an ongoing setting to feature a rotating cast of new and upcoming musicians who have particularly caught my interest along the way.” This edition features James Francies on keyboard and piano and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Francies’s first album as leader came out on Blue Note in 2018. Gilmore’s grandfather is drumming legend Roy Haynes. 7 and 9:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($65-100).

Thursday at the American Craft Council: “Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon.” The 7th most visited website in the world is mostly written by white men. Content is skewed by the lack of representation from women – especially women of color. On Thursday night, the ACC will host an evening of communal updating of Wikipedia entries on subjects related to gender, art and feminism. People of all gender identities and expressions are welcome; so are both novice and experienced Wikipedians. 1224 Marshall St. NE. 5:30-8:30 p.m. Register here. ACC asks that you create a Wikipedia account before the event, bring your laptop and power cord, and come prepared with ideas for entries that need updating or creating.

Small Glories' Cara Luft and JD Edwards
Photo by Stefanie Atkinson
The Small Glories is a roots music duo of former Wailin’ Jennys singer-guitarist Cara Luft and multi-instrumentalist JD Edwards.
Friday at Landmark Center: The Small Glories at Landmark LIVE! Landmark Center’s fall concert series kicks off with Winnipeg’s The Small Glories, a roots music duo of former Wailin’ Jennys singer-guitarist Cara Luft and multi-instrumentalist JD Edwards.  The Glories are out with their Red House Records debut, “Assiniboine & the Red,” named for two rivers that meet in the Manitoba city. We watched this video of the single “Oh My Love” and fell hard – with their voices, their playing, the overall sweetness and the fact that it was filmed at an animal sanctuary. Watch it and we promise you’ll want to see this show, before or after you rescue a dog, a cat or maybe a goat. In the Weyerhaeuser Auditorium. Cocktail reception at 7 p.m., doors at 7:30., show at 8. FMI and tickets ($20). In case you want to mark your calendar for future Landmark LIVE! Concerts: Oct. 11: Eliza Gilkyson. Nov. 15: The OK Factor. Dec. 20: Carrie Elkin.