Freefall’s ‘The Rose and the Beast’ is a unique theater experience in St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG — A wondrous world of fantasy, technology and creativity awaits in St. Petersburg, with Freefall Theatre’s The Rose and the Beast, billed as an “interactive narrative adventure.”

Expect a theater experience unlike any other.

Based on the bestselling novel by Francesca Lia Block, The Rose and the Beast reimagines nine fairy tales including Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty. This modern retelling of the stories touches on contemporary themes, some of which can get quite dark. (The show is not recommended for audiences younger than 13.)

Challenged with moving back into the theater while the pandemic rages on, and away from summer heat that would make performances on the theater’s outdoor stage unbearable, Freefall artistic director Eric Davis conceived an innovative way to present storytelling with local talent without compromising health and safety.

Rather than being seated, audiences walk through a series of nine rooms with their own parties of up to four people. Instead of live performances, the narrative is unveiled using an app called Zappar on audience members’ smart devices. Each story is compellingly voiced by local actors, including Heather Baird, Alison Burns, Eric Davis, Leigh K. Davis, Jen Diaz, Matthew McGee, Trenell Mooring, K Sotakoun and Ericka Womack.

The Zappar app operates similar to a QR code: You use your device’s camera to click on lightning bolt-shaped icons that reveal the stories, which you listen to with earbuds or headphones. As with any technology, things can get glitchy, but Freefall staff is standing by to assist with issues.

Parties stay in each room until they have listened to all of the story, then they are prompted to move on to the next room by red and green lights, which signal whether the previous party is still in there or not.

Freefall’s sets and use of multimedia have always been impressive, but in The Rose and the Beast, those elements shine. Davis (who, with Michael Raabe and Joseph Michael Kenneth, also designed the media components) tapped scenic designers Tom Hansen (who was also the lighting designer), Rebekah Eugenia Lazaridis and Steven K. Mitchell to expertly design three rooms each. The rooms are surprising little worlds unto themselves, some including video and other neat techy elements, like pictures that animate through the app.

Moving through the rooms is a down-the-rabbit-hole experience, as walking through each door brings an entirely new realm. It feels almost like a scavenger hunt, as you look for icons placed on props and walls to scan with your phone. The icons aren’t numbered in the order of the story, and there are no clues for how to listen to the narrative in a linear fashion. This might be frustrating for some, but it wasn’t especially hard to piece things together.

All the while, there is a cacophony of sound effects and music themed for each room, a dreamy soundtrack that perpetuates the fantasy element of the experience. (Pro tip: Using headphones that go over the ear makes it easier to hear the stories, as they block some of the other sounds.) But do take the time to enjoy the original songs in three of the rooms, which were composed by music director Michael Raabe with lyrics by Amanda Elend, sung by Heather Baird, Alison Burns and Ericka Womack, and backed by Raabe (keys), Burt Rushing (drums/percussion) and Paul Stoddart (guitar).

Closing out the adventure is a standard fairy tale capper, but with a twist: A neon signs reads The End.

What to know before you go

  • Download the Zappar app (available for free in the Apple and Google Play stores) on your smartphone or tablet. Make sure your device is fully charged. If you do not have a device, you may borrow one from the theater.

  • You can bring your own air buds, although the ones for iPhones proved problematic with Bluetooth. It’s easier to use earbuds that plug into your phone or, better yet, headphones that cover the ear. If you don’t have either of these, Freefall will provide them to you; they also have adapters for iPhones that don’t have the headphone jack.

  • Arrive 15 minutes early to get your bearings. This is especially important because groups go in 10-minute intervals and arriving too late will affect the party coming after you.

  • Wear comfortable shoes. The experience takes about 90 minutes to move through.

The Rose and the Beast runs through Aug. 8. 3-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Parties can accommodate up to four people. $39-$156. 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-498-5205. freefalltheatre.com.

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