A murder has occurred in the apartment, police tapes bar the threshold. A chalk outline on the floor marks where the victim last lay.
Senior Inspector Gaitonde of the fictional Criminal Bureau of India, along with the audience, the new recruits of the Secret Society of Sleuths, have to solve the murder.
Rangaai Theater Company’s Liar Liar — a Murder Mystery Immersive Experience, is a production woven with layers of deceit, betrayal, vengeance and the desire to apprehend a criminal.
“This is our second production in the genre of murder mystery. #Gargikand, an online production during the pandemic, was the first. It was here that we established a fictional world and its institutions, such as the Criminal Bureau of India, similar to the existing CBI, and Senior Inspector Gaitonde, a recurring lead character. Gaitonde is a good detective and the Secret Society of Sleuths (SSS) will help him as consultants to solve the case,” said Tushar Dalvi, founder and artistic director at Rangaai Theater Company.
As the recruits of SSS, the audience members are given a consultant ID card, gear to avoid contaminating the crime scene — shoe covers, face masks and hand gloves — and a small notepad and pencil. The audience is also handed the case file, which has the profile of the victim, prime suspects and witnesses as well as the coroner reports, the FIR and the first statements of the people involved in the case.
“Once the audience gets settled with the plot of the case, they are briefed by Gaitonde, who from time to time speaks from his experience in the force. Thereafter, it is the sleuths who are to take the course of action on solving the case and catch the killer,” said Dalvi.
To elevate the experience of immersive theatre, the performance is set in an apartment. The audience will be given a set of puzzles prior to the performance to solve and arrive at the coordinates of the location. The performance space, with props such as the police tapes, evidence circles, and the body’s chalk outline is an attempt to make the experience as realistic as possible.
“The exercise to come to the coordinates for the performance location is just a warm-up. The audience (sleuths) will be given puzzles to solve that will uncover a clue, like figuring out the combination of a lock or a password. We also have an evidence wall where the sleuths can pin their deductions and a mock holding cell for the prime suspects, where they can observe their reactions to the case…the entire idea is to give the audience the closest experience to reality,” explained Dalvi .
Dalvi, who plays Gaitonde, said the performers of Rangaai who create the characters of the prime suspects, witnesses and the crime scene photographer, support the audience to get more involved in the plot. “The performers have walked through the plot several times and they know the minutest of details. Each of the characters developed their own storyline and makes sure to keep in tune with the plot as well as with each other. We did a mock drill of the possible questions that can be asked by the audience so they can have an answer ready to give,” he said.
Dalvi said his appreciation of the genre as well as his observations in life helped him in writing the script.
“It is a genre I am very fond of…I enjoyed works on Holmes or Poirot and TV dramas like CSI, NCIS…In Liar Liar, I tried to mold the characters from my observation of people in my life, something many writers do. This story derives inspiration from my time in London with my roommates…The title has the same name as the Jim Carrey film but does not resemble the plot. Since it is a murder mystery, the title fits naturally as all the characters are deceiving or have something to hide. The audience is to participate and uncover the truth under the layers of lies,” he said.
The performance underwent two test runs with a test audience in the past month. Dalvi said the exercise helped them understand the audience’s behavior in this form of immersive theatre, how much handholding the audience required from the team and the need to give a healthy space to like-minded individuals.
“During the test runs, we were dividing people into threes and making them compete with one another but the feedback from them suggested collaboration among members instead. Inspector Gaitonde acts like a moderator inbetween the sleuths,” he said.
Liar Liar premiered on May 7 to full capacity with the second show scheduled on May 14. “The audience response was exceptional after the trials. However, the slots are limited given the nature of the piece. Mostly we would stick between 15 and 24 people at a time,” he said.
Dalvi added that for the audience, apart from the overall immersive experience, there are some social cues woven in the plotline as takeaways. “They will of course have the gratification of solving a case on their own…the experience and thrill to become Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie,” said Dalvi.