If the great surrealist painter Salvador Dali and iconic LSD proponent Timothy Leary designed an after-hours club during the height of a pandemic in Cabaret-era Berlin, it would definitely look something like Eschaton.
(Virtually) wander the seductively murky, always tantalizing rooms of Eschaton‘s gloriously bizarre, hour-long livestream and you’ll find dancing magicians, burlesque strippers, sultry chanteuses, giant rats, drag royalty, profane puppeteers, and Chicago’s Tony Grayson, coughing up cockroaches and trying to clean up a murder scene in the north side attic of an underground comedy venue.
Grayson’s your host, a poet/performance artist who sometimes wears a massive papier-mache mask and sometimes speaks in extreme close-up, their face peering out from inside a mini set they created: a parlor-like room just big enough to accommodate an adult-sized human head.
“My brain at the beginning was like, OK, we’re doing this stream show in place of the in-person show. But as we went on, it became obvious: This wasn’t a replacement. This was the show–in a new medium. With elements you can only create with digital, interactive film,” Grayson says.
Its title comes from the Greek for (roughly) the end of history, or the last event in some higher power’s divine plan. Eschaton didn’t start out as a virtual show, with audiences meandering via mouse clicks through the tantalizing shenanigans of a labyrinthine club where a weird new adventure lies within each of a dozen or so Zoom rooms.
Creators Brittany Blum and Tessa Shea Whitehead originally planned an immersive, site-specific interactive production along the lines of Sleep No More, where ticketholders wander through different rooms as a multilayered, never-the-same-twice story unfolds.
“We started out the pandemic thinking that we needed to find an alternative, some way of doing an immersive show without the being-there-in-person physical immersion,” Grayson says. “But as we worked, we started to realize that what we were creating wasn’t a substitute for anything–virtual Eschaton became its own thing,” they say.
Indeed, Eschaton is very much its singular own thing. Audience members are free to loiter in the various Eschaton rooms as the spirit moves them, piecing together the many narratives woven into the production’s uncompromising, celebratory freakiness.
Throughout, Grayson plays Niko, a genial if comically insecure host-with-the-most, gifted at using their considerable offbeat charms to draw out even those who habitually take a hard pass when it’s time for “audience interaction.”
“As an audience member, I’m somebody who finds it nerve-wracking when someone in the show calls on you. So it’s important to me that our audience knows they are in good hands. You can’t be just like ‘Where are you from? OK, cool,’ and then it’s like all the air gets sucked out of the room because nobody knows what to say next.
“With Eschaton, I work to make sure there’s never that hesitancy when I’m doing crowd work. If an audience member doesn’t know what to say, that’s OK, because my job is to navigate that with the classic rule of improv–make your scene partner look as good as possible,” they say.
Grayson has had some mondo-bizarro scene partners wandering the halls of Eschaton, where audiences are asked to keep their cameras on throughout the 60-minute show.
“The craziest thing I ever saw was this guy Kevin, who had magnets implanted into his fingers,” Grayson says. “Sometimes that happens–I’ll be chatting with people throughout the show and suddenly I’ll stumble onto something incredibly odd and I’ll be like, ‘What even was that?’
“We had one regular couple for a while who brought this creepy doll they’d make talk. Loved it,” they say.
Along with Blum and Whitehead, Grayson was joined in devising the piece with ensemble members in London, Berlin, New York City, and Tennessee. Audience members have visited Eschaton from as far away as Tokyo.
As the pandemic raged, Grayson found solace in dancing with total strangers miles away.
“I do a bit where I ask someone to dance. I can’t really explain it–but dancing with people virtually? It makes you feel better. It makes you create a community in a pretty amazing way,” they say.
Niko–who Grayson conjures as equal parts raging insecurity and over-the-top showboat–lives in the attic of Chicago’s illustrious DIY performance venue The Shithole, where Grayson lives on the first floor. On show dates, Grayson trudges up to the attic with their kit of lights and audio equipment. In non-pandemic times, rowdy, sweaty crowds pack the place for late-night offerings of performance art and stand-up. For now, the attic is solely Niko’s turf.
“Going back up there for Eschaton, it was like walking into a ghost town,” Grayson says of the attic space. “But the energy of the people that had been there, you could feel them. The old beer cans. The sweat. All this amazing energy, palpable.”
Finding that energy was crucial to Grayson’s artistic survival over the long lockdown. After Eschaton‘s first show, they packed up their laptop, cameras, and sound system and descended from the attic back to the living quarters.
“My roommate hugged me and asked how it went,” Grayson recalls. “And all I could think was that it felt like art really mattered. I go through these phases–especially in the pandemic–where I’m always asking myself: ‘What are we even doing? Who is this even for?’ But I exited the attic that night knowing how much art means to people. And always will mean to people.”
Grayson also found themself connecting with the ensemble, even though they never met in person.
“We do these aftershow hangs, and there was one when we all realized we were using the same Neutrogena wipes to clean off our makeup. It was such an unexpected, weirdly specific connection. We all felt, all of a sudden, like we were about to go out after the show,” they say.
Grayson’s optimistic live Shithole shows will return. But for now, they invite all and sundry to Eschaton. It’s worth the trip. v
Next dates for Eschaton are TBA. See info.eschaton.club for updated info.