There is a way to talk about The Madcap Motel that is very meta about immersive entertainment. In one form or another, these experiences all aim to transport us Elsewhere and promise us a temporary escape from Reality.
Madcap’s particular Elsewhere is a house of curiosities. Curiosity is the basis for the main part of the experience (basically, what could be behind that door?). The people (actors) trapped in Elsewhere, too, are curious: both inquisitive and unusual. Some wore lab coats and carried clipboards, on which they enthusiastically took notes regarding not only the strange phenomena of Elsewhere but also our own behaviors as visitors. At one point, a scientist character gestured our group over to observe one of the creatures of Elsewhere: a shadow puppet of her own hand behind a large leaf. It is the essence of childlike playfulness: inexhaustible curiosity, and the willingness to take even the most ridiculous things completely seriously.
Put another way, Madcap’s Elsewhere is Wonderland. Its purpose is “wandering” and “wondering.” You explore one oddity after another. Some have deeper layers to uncover, others are apparently rather simple. You take a look, and maybe a photo, and then continue on. Curiouser and curiouser.
One very Alice in Wonderland feeling in particular was juxtaposed in my mind with an experience at The Broad, which I happened to visit just two days prior. By coincidence, I’d gone to the museum with a friend who was also in my Madcap group. One of the pieces at The Broad is “Under The Table” by Robert Therrien, a way-larger-than-life dining table and chairs. While posing for a photo, my friend tried perching on the bar supporting the chair’s legs. Surprise surprise, he was scolded by museum staff. The gigantic chair at Madcap, by contrast, is clearly meant to be climbed on, and he easily got the photo op that the sculpture invites. Therrien’s chairs and Madcap’s chair inspire a similar Alice in Wonderland feeling, both childlike and surreal. The difference is in the environment. Here is a tale of two Elsewheres: one where you are encouraged to act on your playful impulses, and another where doing so is super not allowed.
(I’m sure there’s something deeper going on with this comparison, too. About what art is, probably. Or what a museum is. Google categorizes the Madcap Motel as a museum, and tons of experiential use “museum” in their names.)
That being said, I’m on the fence as to whether Madcap does enough with the curiosity it inspires. I want to take Elsewhere as it is, without putting too many game-design-y expectations onto it. At times, my instinct was to approach certain elements like an escape room. But I know that’s not what it is, and it certainly doesn’t need to be one. If the goal is just to get people into a playful mindset, Madcap definitely achieves it. At one point, for instance, someone in my group stuck his head completely into an open porthole diorama because he wanted to experience the full “infinity” effect of its mirrored panels.
But when I asked him if it was worth it, wondering if I should stick my head in too, he said not really. So I didn’t.
There were other moments like this. In a tilted motel room set, I found myself less interested in taking perspective-bending photos, and more into trying to discover other weirdness in the room. I picked up the telephone receivers, but heard nothing. I fiddled with the buttons on the television, but nothing happened. I took a pair of blue jeans out of a half-open dresser drawer. They were ordinary, and I soon folded them up and put them back. An attendant in the room didn’t react to my antics either; were they not an actor? Just there to disinfect, or take people’s pictures? Were they observing me as an experimental test subject for some unknown task that I was miserably failing at? I should have just asked.
Play is a dialogue. Elsewhere doesn’t need to be a solvable mystery, or a puzzle with a solution. It doesn’t need to answer any of the questions it poses. But in the moments where the environment didn’t seem to respond to my curiosity (I almost want to say “reward” my curiosity, though that feels too transactional in this case), it was a bit like I was missing a conversation partner. Or rather, that Elsewhere opened a conversation, I replied “yes, and,” and then they fell silent.
This kind of back-and-forth that I sometimes missed from the environmental aspects was, however, satisfied by Elsewhere’s characters. Interacting with the actors, who literally engage you in improvised playful conversation, was delightful. Even the completely obscured, non-speaking Hedge Person still managed to express tons of personality and great comedic timing. Characters’ comments also enhanced the rooms themselves. One area with vertical vinyl window blinds probably would have fallen a bit flat for me, had an actor not warned us to wear our sunglasses in ahead of time: “It’s blinding in there!”
Maybe it’s just me. I suppose that not everyone has my same desire for “dialogue” with the space, even in the experiential genre. In a mirrored room, my friends found a quirk of one part of the walls that allowed them to create an illusion of floating by only reflecting one side of their bodies. We entertained ourselves doing this for a little while, making sound effects and trying to balance on one foot without wobbling. It was fun, and silly. To me, their discovery of something unusual the room could “do,” of a new curiosity that they unlocked through action, became the most interesting part of a room where the main features were otherwise rather similar to selfie palaces (mirrors and multicolored lamps). But outside of our group, it didn’t really catch on. The other guests continued to mill about and pose for pictures. And that’s fine too. Play can’t be forced.
My favorite part of Elsewhere was in the same room as the giant chair. There was a huge television that you could step into, and when you did, the picture came alive with static and flashing lights. Suddenly, you were “on”! And with ’60s pop hits playing in the background, it felt like the only thing to do was dance. It was such a natural reaction; no thinking, only wild dancing!
That is among the best of what any Elsewhere can do. It can break your walls down completely. Invite you to step into a new state of being. Open you up to joyful expression, and a bit of ridiculousness.
Your invitation to the Madcap Motel urges you to Escape Reality. And overall, it is very transporting. The theming was excellent. You feel like you’ve gone back in time from the moment you step indoors, well before anything interdimensional happens. One of my friends took issue with the exposed ceiling, which does break some of Elsewhere’s illusions. But this didn’t keep me from feeling like I’d taken a welcome break from the real world. Hanging out in the central area after exploring all the other rooms, taking in the fake foliage, blueish lighting, and the soothing sound of a water fountain… I was “ready” to go back to Reality, in that my curiosity had been exhausted. But I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it.
After a very entertaining theatrical outro, followed by some gift shop browsing, we exited into the parking lot, face to face with a couple of dumpsters. Back to Reality, indeed. Though in this case, the harshness of that final transition feels somehow appropriate.
In the end, I feel good about my vacation in Elsewhere. Even with the moments that felt like it wanted to go in a particular direction, but stopped short of fully committing.
Do I still wish I had heard something odd and unexpected on the other end of the motel telephone receiver? Yes.
Was I a bit disappointed that my friend didn’t receive a little shock when he stuck his finger into an oversized electrical socket for a photo? Absolutely. That would have been hilarious. And Madcap is definitely a place with a sense of humor.
And yet, do I have a small, nagging feeling that despite my inquisitiveness, I may not have discovered everything going on in Elsewhere? Also, yes. Whether it’s true or not, that feeling is a sign of Madcap’s success. Even knowing what’s behind each door, some wonder still remains. Maybe after enough time, and given that the experience might evolve, I’ll become curious enough to visit again.