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Review

Nightmare on 'Kaidan' street: Immersive theater project mines Japanese folk tales for weird spooks

It’s part haunted house, part art installation, part performance-art piece: The Rogue Artist Ensemble and East West Players’ immersive “Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin” unfolds in an abandoned warehouse that has been reconfigured into settings for a series of nightmares spun out of Japanese folklore.

“Kaidan,” formerly romanized as “Kwaidan,” is a Japanese word that loosely translates as “ghost stories,” or perhaps more accurately (since they’re more trippy than scary), “weird tales.”

You’ll find out where to go only after buying a ticket — at which point you’ll also receive a letter requesting your help in solving a mystery. Kana Mori, the owner of Mori Storage, disappeared six weeks ago somewhere on the upper floors of her building. From odd clues and fragmentary communications, her employees at the warehouse surmise that she’s still somewhere inside — and that only you (and the 11 other people in your time slot) can track her down. They greet you at the entrance in their uniforms, explain your mission and lead you into an old freight elevator.

Lisa Dring and Chelsea Sutton wrote the script, which uses the mystery of Kana’s disappearance as a framework for scenes that play out in cramped hallways and pitch-black rooms behind hidden doorways. You are guided along this unsettling journey by performers costumed (by Lori Meeker) in increasingly wondrous ways.

Only one of these plays-within-a-play actually has much to do with what happened to Kana, so if you’re single-mindedly focused on getting to the bottom of the mystery (as I was at first), they may feel like puzzling distractions. A less anxiety-inducing approach is to give yourself up to each tale as it comes without worrying about the bigger picture.

The stories — Japanese folktales dating to the Edo period (early 1600s to mid-1800s) or even earlier — revolve less around plot or character than around imagery. These are surreal visions that, out of their cultural context, feel plucked from the fever dreams of a long-ago child: a vengeful, shape-shifting fox; a body inscribed head to toe with protective prayers; disembodied hands caught in a tangle of black hair; strangers without faces; a ritual of blood, water and salt.

Each encounter has been lovingly designed by director Sean T. Cawelti, technical director Pete Hickok and their imaginative team to engage a variety of senses. You may be plunged into darkness, sprinkled with water, asked to smell something or obliged to hold a flashlight for a performer preoccupied by the spirit world, which sometimes manifests itself in the form of puppets (credited to Cawelti and Brian White). If a phone rings, it might be for you.

Each of Keith Mitchell and Dillon Nelson’s diverse scenic designs has the feel of a childhood fort, a playland built out of cardboard, paper, paint, cloth and discarded household items. Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting and the diverse and engaging soundtrack (uncredited) mesh beautifully with Matthew G. Hill’s projections to summon a range of settings.

The behind-the-scenes choreography required to guide visitors through the experience is daunting to imagine, if not always seamless. Occasionally, a cog seemed to stick. Like, were we meant to be in that one room for so long, or did somebody fail to unlock the door? Some scenarios tested my patience; in others, such as a cluster of gem-like little rooms where various scenes played out, I wished I had more time to explore.

It can be awkward to spend a lot of time with people who are doing improv at you. You are forced to make a choice with fairly major ramifications for your self-image: Are you the sort to get into the act, with an enthusiasm that could prove unwelcome? Or do you remain skeptical and standoffish, hoping everybody else will think you’re supercool? (This is my fallback, and FYI, it doesn’t work.)

The performers seemed comfortable with all the responses they provoked, remaining good-naturedly in character even when interacting with an audience member, or vamping to cover a transition. Although I couldn’t help wishing that the creative elements of “Kaidan Project” had added up to something more consequential, they made for a thoroughly entertaining trip.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin’

Where: Mid-City L.A. warehouse, address and entry instructions revealed upon purchase

When: Entry every 20 minutes beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, plus some additional dates and times; extended through Nov. 19

Price: $70-$75

Info: (213) 596-9468, www.rogueartists.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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The 99-Seat Beat: Picks from L.A.’s small-theater scene

Review: Immersive ghost stories in ‘Kaidan Project’

Review: ‘Time Alone’ at Los Angeles Theatre Center


UPDATES:

12:10 p.m. Oct. 31: This review was updated to reflect the extension of the run through Nov. 19.

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