Assembly required: Exciting new show turns a furniture store into a stage

Active sitting: “Assemble” requires its participants to interact with some of the objects in the furniture store.
Photo by Talya Chalef

This show has a lot in store!

A bizarre and exciting new immersive theater show sent me creeping through a waterfront furniture store early this week, seeking drama and romantic tension somewhere between the curtains and the bookshelves. The experience transformed the familiar space of the home goods retailer — a space where I had every right to be — into a secret stage for an epic exploration of choice. 

“Assemble,” running as part of the Exponential Festival, is a “choose your own adventure” style experience delivered through a smartphone app. After buying a ticket for Monday night at 6:45 pm, I was given a secret address in Red Hook. There I was given an app access code, put on my headphones, and was ushered, along with a pair of other participants, to the store in question.

The app delivers instructions and a story directly to your ears, telling you where to go inside the store. As you travel through the maze-like furniture retailer, you hear the story of Jane, a woman who has just turned 40, as she reflects on her life. Stop in a particular room, and the app urges you to choose an item there. Do you step into the bathtub? Sit on the rug? Turn on a lamp? Each choice triggers a different scenario in Jane’s memory or her imagination, along with — literally — a new path for the narrative. 

Wandering through the faux-domestic showrooms, I heard Jane’s memories of parties, hookups, and breakups. Other rooms acted as portals to her fantasies, where I could eavesdrop on intimate, imaginary moments. And at every turn, I was forced to make choices, without knowing how it could affect the story — just as in life, when we have no idea the impact our responses will have on our futures. 

The audio turns the otherwise sterile location into an impressive storytelling device, and Jane’s story of middle-aged aimlessness will sound familiar to anyone who has ever felt like their life is going nowhere. Her nervousness was echoed by my own — I felt conspicuous, wandering around the store with my headphones on, the only person there not picking out a bedroom set with a partner. Store employees have no idea the performance is taking place, and they likely do not care, but I still felt like an outsider, sneaking around the store like a freak. 

The entire experience takes around 75 minutes, most of it spent walking around a cavernous box store. “Assemble” can be exhausting for the legs, but it thrills the ears with a convincing and absorbing narrative.

“Assemble” at an undisclosed location in Red Hook (revealed after ticket purchase at www.projectassemble.org). Thu–Mon through Feb. 2; every 15 minutes from 5–7 pm. $20.