Arts & Culture

Locked inside Tacoma’s ‘Last Escape’ room

A group pores over mysterious tarot cards, one of the many puzzles in “The Last Escape” room.
A group pores over mysterious tarot cards, one of the many puzzles in “The Last Escape” room.

It was the Morse code of ghostly noises that sucked me in.

I’d agreed to be part of a group doing “The Last Escape,” a theatrical DIY experience in which you get locked in a room with strangers with just one hour to solve the puzzles that will let you all out.

I was skeptical. I’m not a puzzle person and am suspicious of team-building activities. So I took photos, asked questions and watched everyone else try to figure it out. But when I realized the ghostly knocks and “oohs” in our Sherlock Holmes-decorated parlor in Tacoma’s Old Post Office were a kind of aural code, I couldn’t resist the challenge.

And that’s the whole premise of puzzle rooms, with a good deal of play-acting and social awkwardness thrown in. Seattle got its first puzzle room in 2013, Portland in 2014. They’re wildly popular in Hungary and China, where they take over enormous venues with dozens of participants. Sometimes called “Escape Rooms,” they’re exactly what they sound like: a room, usually tricked out in a period theme and manned by actors and recorded voices, that contains a chain of codes, anagrams, logic puzzles, hidden keys, secret writing and the like, which you and and your fellow puzzlers (who have paid $25 for the privilege) must solve to unlock the door.

Tacoma just joined the club, thanks to a local actor, Andrew Fry, who’s set up the whole thing with strategic and technical help from fellow theater-folk (including mystery novelist Erik Hanberg).

We were the eighth group to go through the room since it opened. Our motley crew (the room needs between four and 10 participants) included my very unwilling husband, who despite being an engineer is not a puzzler either, two cafe workers who’d heard about it from Fry, two of their friends and two more connections of Fry’s.

In other words, strangers.

After hearing the rules (50 minutes to get out, no breaking anything) and signing a release that included using simple tools and being in a confined space, we filed into a room that a 19th-century detective would have been proud of. Set designer Blake York has filled the post office room with wooden desks full of mysterious objects, silky ceiling drapes, sinister bookshelves, an old record player, trunks, lamps and crystal balls. Behind the scenes, a tech person (also the host, who meets you outside the building) operates the lights and sound effects, triggered as you solve (or fail to solve) puzzles.

As we squished around the table to meet Lady Jade (actor Jessica Robbins), the gypsy medium who would offer reluctant help, it definitely felt awkward. Who were these people, and would they be any use getting me out? You can bring your own group to a puzzle room, which would definitely be a team-building exercise. But there’s also a certain frisson in getting locked in with strangers.

So — this is where reviewing “The Last Escape” gets challenging. For obvious reasons, I’m not allowed to tell you what happened next. Nor do I want to, as my group worked darn hard to solve those puzzles, and I’m not about to hand them over to you. Let’s just say it involved tarot cards, the spirit of the world’s most famous magician (that begins with an H), a hidden room, a talking mirror, books that are not books — and of course, those ghostly noises.

I also won’t give you any tips, except for general strategy: Talk with each other. Ask the medium lots of questions. Look for clues in everything. Bring people in your group who are good at different kinds of thinking: verbal, visual, numerical, logical. Go to the bathroom beforehand. And don’t waste time.

What I can say is that this was the most fun I’ve ever had in a locked room. Fry and his team have created both an absorbing brain challenge and a delightfully melodramatic piece of theater, with a plot derived from real life for extra interest.

But it’s tough.

According to Fry, puzzle rooms succeed best if only 20 percent make it through within the hour. We were the first group that did it (possibly a function of having a reviewer in the room), which puts “The Last Escape” at a 12 percent success rate. Yet, even if you fail, it’s still fun (and they will let you out anyway, obviously). It makes a great date for couples, families and friends alike — even skeptical journalists.

I didn’t even feel more than a twinge of claustrophobia — I had too much to think about. (You can leave the room early if you have to, though so far no one has, Fry said.) There’s nothing in here that anyone over the age of 10 would get frightened by, and in fact, it’s perfect for kids as they tend to look outside the obvious.

“The Last Escape,” or rather Fry’s overall enterprise, Adventures by Appointment, has a good future ahead. Spaceworks has given Fry a big discount on the rent for six months, which allows him to pay his actors and develop new rooms — he’s already thinking about a bank heist theme for one of the Post Office’s original teller rooms downstairs. He runs scheduled weekend shows (see the box) but can open the room any time for groups of 6-10.

If there’s anything I would change about “The Last Escape,” it would be to make it just a little easier in some parts. But hey, at least I figured out what the ghostly noises were spelling out: G-O-T-C-H-A. No, just kidding. Go figure out your own escape.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

“The Last Escape”

What: Adventures by Appointment, directed by Andrew Fry.

When: 7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays and by appointment.

Where: Old Post Office Building, 1102 A St., Tacoma.

Cost: $25 per person. Book ahead.