'Saboteur' brings audience and puzzles together

Emma Gochberg and Bruce Abas.

Emma Gochberg and Bruce Abas.

​After the success of 1926 Pleasant at the 2006 Minnesota Fringe Festival (it sold out 18 of 20 performances), fans wanted to know when Walking Shadow Theatre Company would return to the site-specific puzzle format of the piece. It's taken five years, but the group's latest piece, Saboteur, opens this week in northeast Minneapolis. 

It's a journey that has been a thrill for David Pisa, who is responsible for the show's story and puzzles. "We announced last fall that we were going to do another puzzle show," he says.

What they didn't have at the time was a venue.

"We knew the venue itself would inspire the show. We wrote half of it before we found it. We knew what the theme was going to be and the basic outline for the puzzles," Pisa says. "Once we found the space, the physical layout of the space was very exciting. It also inspired the rest of the show."

Walking Shadow has kept the exact location under wraps, as much for logistic reasons (they're not selling walk-up tickets) as aesthetic ones. Pisa does note that while the show does involve standing and moving from room to room, there are no trips to secret locations or long walks from building to building. The entire action takes place in the single building.

The action is split between puzzles that need to be solved by the participants and scenes played out by the actors. If you've spent time playing Legend of Zelda, Silent Hill, or any number of other video game franchises in the past two decades, you can think of the acting scenes as the "cut scene" reward for doing the work. 

"As in the best video games, the puzzles are integral to the story. It's not just a case of jamming two gems together. We had to answer, 'wWy are there puzzles in this story?,'" Pisa says.

While the environment generates some puzzles, the theme of the piece dictates others. The first show was a ghost story, while Saboteur uses a spy theme, which provided plenty of ideas for puzzles, Pisa says.

While not wanting to spoil the surprises about this puzzle show, Pisa did mention some aspects of the first one. In one of the puzzles, "It was a giant Sudoku puzzle, but it was on a six by six grid, with tiles to put on it. Once they solved the Sudoku, they saw that some of the numbers were outlined and were obviously a telephone number. You called the phone number and a message on the answering machine told them the next part of the story."

"Not everyone who attends has to participate. Some are content to let others do the puzzles," Pisa says. "It's a lot of fun for us to watch the group dynamic develop. Every audience is different." 

And those people--hardened puzzle solvers to absolute novices--are, like any live theatrical event, what make the show really work.

"The fun part about this is the audience. We can playtest it as much as you want, the audience will always think of things that you didn't," Pisa says.

Saboteur runs Thursday through Aug. 3.