“I lost my boyfriend,” I said to the man. He had just completed two backflips, landed in the lap of another man, and pirouetted over to me to get his jacket, which I was somehow holding.
“Forget about him. Do you know why I chose you?” His eyes were a deep blue, defined by black eye liner and glitter. He took my hand. He smelled like sweat, like lavendar.
“No,” I heard myself say.
“I chose you because you’re beautiful,” he said, and drew a small capital Q on my hand, right above my thumb. “You’ll find out what this means later.”
“There are a lot of beautiful people here,” I said.
“Not like you.” He gave the palm of my hand a final stroke and took an arabesque, dancing away. I had no time to reflect: a woman in a nude bodysuit was hanging upside down from a trapeze, three feet away.
Such spontaneous, intimate interactions are part of the Queen of the Night experience. It’s a variety show, a ball, and a rock ‘n roll ballet. It’s a gymnasium, a burlesque performance, an opera, and a feast. Frequently mentioned with Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s expansive, acclaimed adaptation of MacBeth, Queen gives viewers an immersive theater experience like no other. It’s set in Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe Supper Club in the Paramount Hotel’s basement, which brought theater go-ers song, dance, and pleasure in the ’40s. The theater, while lavish, has a decayed quality about it. Producer Randy Weiner told Vanity Fair, “The paint’s peeling, the walls are chipped, the floor has scuff marks all over it. That’s a feeling we really wanted to retain. It’s the feeling I had when I walked into this space, going down this empty place that feels almost haunted because of all the history.”
The stage is truly the entire room, from the hanging trapezes to the center podium to your dinner table, where cast members will land, dance, and intertwine. Every detail is choreographed, every corner carefully set. The door knobs are iron hands that reach for your own. A butler asks you to turn your chair around, just in time for three cast members to deposit a woman into your lap. Around the corner, you find a naked woman shaving her legs in a milk bath. The show itself has a simple yet engaging narrative arc (very loosely based on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”), but the plot is really secondary to the drama of live performances of skilled acrobats, ballerinas, and vaudevillian stars and starlets. For dinner, your table will be served lobsters from a cage, a whole suckling pig on a spit, or beef ribs. You’ll be told to trade with other tables, which makes for some fun bartering. A steam-punky bar can be found in the back to keep you sated, but I recommend not getting drunk — it’s too likely you’ll miss something.
The whole idea behind this immersive theater is to push patrons past their comfort zones — but not so far that they feel uncomfortable. They’re aiming for a sweet spot you find when you take a leap and do something that scares you — a roller coaster ride, for example, or performing on stage — and which proves to be totally worth it. The performers convince you that you are special, important even, that they are there for everyone but are really there just for you. The final act is something you personally take part in, and I won’t spoil it. A staff member told us that there is an entire floor of rooms above the banquet hall that we didn’t even see. Cast members escort guests at random, and they might ask you to tell your deepest secret, or give you a love letter written to you by your own mother. Yes, they’re that thorough.
Some advice: dress up. An inside source told us that patrons who are dressed sharp get more attention. You’ll also feel much more like you’re part of it if you look great. I wore a black cocktail dress and heels, and my partner donned a black suit and tie; it was perfect. Don’t stick by the bar during the first hour when you’re told to “explore” and “mingle.” Be bold, wander around, don’t be afraid to lose the other people in your party for a bit: you’ll find each other later. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t fret. Just grab a waiter or cast member and let her know when the food is brought out. You’ll be guided to the veggie table for some yummy mushroom risotto and gigantic cauliflower. Most of all, don’t try to have a plan. Be curious and open doors. You might end up in the kitchen, like we did, but the cast will gently guide you out.
All of this doesn’t come cheap, as you may expect of New York City. It’s $140 a ticket, but considering you get fed (quite literally!) and the show lasts three hours, it’s really worth it. (And people will pay $60 for dinner-theater at Chaffin’s Barn in Nashville for high school musical-quality entertainment, so please, suck it up and go!)
Just like a high thrill roller coaster ride, as soon as it was over, I thought, “I want to do it again!” One beauty of interactive theater is that every time will be different, so theater go-ers can delight again and again and again.
On my way to the subway, my boyfriend and I talked about whether something like this will ever make it to Nashville. (We experienced Chaffin’s earlier this summer, with some dismay.) “No,” I say, “too scandalous.” “And not enough theater-people,” he agrees. Which is why I’ll always love New York.