Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Fiddler on the Roof, Footloose, 42nd Street, and Stinkers

Emblem of The Order of the White Stag
Design by Erik Evenson
How do you know if Cabal, a "puzzle play," is your cup of tea? First of all, do you like puzzles, of the type that require looking for clues and putting together what seem like random fragments, images, letters or numbers to arrive at meaning? Do you like being engaged, not just sitting and watching but moving about, handling materials, and speaking aloud? Also, you need a degree of comfort working with other audience members ("participants" is really a more apt phrase) who may be strangers to you, at least at the start of Cabal.

Finally, you must be willing to suspend disbelief and accept the notion that, for purposes of this event only, you are being initiated into a secret society, the Order of the White Stag, which will reveal to you magical powers for which our mundane world is not yet ready, but for which you have been chosen. As a member of the White Stag you will be charged to protect those unready for this power, and guard the power itself against falling into the hands of those who use unwisely or to do harm.

Walking Shadow Theater Company is one of the most dynamic small theaters in the Twin Cities, who over the past few years have staged some of the brightest local productions, such as Gabriel, The Christians, Red Velvet, and their most recent production, Equivocation. However, it has been over a year since their last show, and I, for one, have missed them. Walking Shadow is now back, having spent the past year developing and preparing Cabal, the most recent of their puzzle plays.

Some of you may have experienced their two past puzzle play productions: 1926 Pleasant, staged in 2006, and Saboteur, which was produced in 2011. If so, you have an idea what to expect from Cabal. If not, you will be in for a wholly new experience.

In a rented space within the 2010 Hennepin Avenue East building complex, a former commercial complex repurposed as a hive of creative and professional services, Walking Shadow has constructed a series of rooms through which up to ten audience members are led over the course of ninety minutes. After being initiated by the two White Stag members who act as guides—Morgan Zakar and Jack Nimble—we learn that the mystical leader of White Stag is in trouble, and the entire order is in grave danger. We are now initiates, so there is no turning back. It is up to us to work together, finding clues and solving the puzzles they present to us, moving from space to space as we are pulled into a leadership crisis within the very core of the Order of the White Stag. We alone can save the day.

Sound like fun? It certainly was for most of my fellow cadre of initiates. Most were pretty quick on the draw as to how to approach the complex and quite creatively designed puzzles placed before us, giving the appearance of having done this kind of thing before. I could scarcely believe how sharp their minds were in parsing together the clues given to us. Since my companion for the evening and I were newbies, it took us longer to get the hang of things and, therefore, to feel fully in the spirit. So, fair to say, we had less fun than the rest, but we still enjoyed ourselves. Plus, should we try our turn at another puzzle play, we’ll be that much more ready to dive in with greater gusto.

A large team of artists, artisans and techies were involved in creating Cabal, and their collective creative output is impressive. The starting place is the story, devised by John Heimbuch and David Pisa, turned into a script by Heimbuch, a more or less standard mash-up of secret society/magic/world in peril tropes, but given an fresh twist, and the dialogue provided by script writer (that is what the credits call him) Heimbuch, suit the occasion well. The greatest portion of time, however, is spent collectively working out the puzzles, which are both challenging and fun, once one begins to pick up the patterns in clues and strategies. Pisa is credited for puzzle designs, and one can readily imagine how much fun he had crafting those mind-teasers.

The environments in which Cabal is played out, and in which my group of fellow initiates solved the riddles, are designed with extravagant attention to the most minute details, many of which turn up as clues in the course of the evening. Pisa is also credited with scenic design and along with Heimbuch and Amy Rummenie designed the props and dressed the sets to provide each of the chambers we pass through with the requisite atmosphere of evil lying in wait. Some nifty sound, light, and video effects also contribute to the overall sense of being immersed in another realm, with credit to Megan Reilly, light and video design, and Isabel Patt, sound design. I was particularly impressed by some mirrors unexpectedly shattering right before my eyes.

Of the two actors who serve as our guides, but are each portraying specific characters, Tara Borman, as Morgan Zakar, delivers a more persuasive performance. Her welcome to the initiates and introduction to the Order of the White Stag are conveyed with warmth and total conviction, along with a bit of pride in her own role within the order. When things go awry, her fears and defense of the Order are authentic. As Jack Nimble, Jamie Case is less convincing at the start, giving us a sense of pretending to be our guide to the secrets of magic while actually coaching our puzzle-solving. In the course of Cabal, she begins to take on more of Jack Nimble’s qualities, but never seems fully immersed, even when the character goes through a dramatic transformation.

Depending on how one feels about stories that venture into occult realms, it may be thought of as silly or intriguing. Of course, for those who primarily are there for the challenge and joy of solving the puzzles, the story may merely be a frame to drape the puzzles around, and the performances just a means to usher the story along. It is difficult to judge Cabal by the same criteria as other works of theater, but make no mistake, theater it is.

The over-riding quality of Cabal is its participatory structure that requires an audience to work as a group, allowing for give and take, and recognizing one another’s contributions. Its energy comes largely from the combustion of minds working together for the joy of solving a puzzle. Given the nature of this experience, Walking Shadow has done an excellent job of constructing it, and it remains for you to become an initiate and venture into the Order of the White Stag for yourself.

Cabal, through December 31, 2019, at 2010 Hennepin Avenue East, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $45.00. For tickets go to or call 612-375-0300. Note, tickets must be reserved in advance. No tickets are available at the door for any performance.

Project Lead: David Pisa; Story: John Heimbuch and David Pisa; Script Writer and Director: John Heimbuch; Puzzle Design, Scenic Design and Production Manager: David Pisa; Lighting and Video Design: Megan Reilly; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Sound Design: Isabel Patt; Props Design and Set Dressing: John Heimbuch, David Pisa and Amy Rummenie; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Assistant Director: Lauren Jauert; Associate Sound and Video Design: John Heimbuch; Show Manager: Veronica Silva.

Cast: Tara Borman (Morgan Zakar), Jamie Case (Jack Nimble)