I am among the travelers who have crossed over. I listen to their discussions on how to use their ability to alter the natural laws of this world to create beauty, peace, and harmony. But something is wrong.

I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be watching this as a film, seated comfortably in the world’s most avant-garde digital theater.

One of the travelers quietly slips away from the discussion. I catch a fleeting glimpse of their face and it reminds me of someone I once knew. I have forgotten their name, and everything else about them but I still remember those eyes. I follow, drawn to that stranger who is not a stranger in my confusion.

I find them standing where the water meets the land in a broad expanse of white sand. They turn to me, smile, and suddenly the surroundings are different. We are in a garden of topiary and elaborate sliding metal walls that stretches as far as I can see. It was created by them, that very moment, by bending the laws of the world.

Welcome. The words are not spoken, nor do they need to be.

I don’t understand. I reply. I’m just watching you in the film; I can’t be among you.

A curious thing, isn’t it, plunging into the sacred cenote? There are many chinks between the worlds, after all. Whether you choose to see this as anything other than a trick of dream logic…you are here.

The strange but not strange traveler holds out their hands; what should have been empty air is instead a chess set of frosted crystal with strange and elaborate pieces haphazardly set upon it. Their first move is to bring two pieces, impossibly, into the same spot at the same time.

The rules have been altered by the power of this place: the object is not to kill or capture but to embrace and love.

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“I’m here to see The Sacred Cenote,” but I seem to have misplaced my date.”

“Misplaced?” Marcus laughed. “is that a recurring problem with you?” He meant it as a good-natured jab but it keened a bit.

“Yeah, I think this is the third time I’ve been ditched at the movies,” I said. “I’ll learn my lesson one of these days.”

Marcus shifted his weight uncomfortably, feeling he’d touched a nerve. “So, The Sacred Cenote, huh? I heard the movie took five years to make and that you can only see it as the original dead director intended in New York, LA, and here at the Mackinac. NY, LA, Hopewell…one of those things is not like the other, eh?”

“I think it’s because the new director graduated from the SMU film school,” I said. “I’m certainly not complaining; I’ve never seen the Mackinac this full and I had to buy the tickets online through a lottery. Of course the whole date situation and missing the first quarter of the film already isn’t helping.”

I meant that as a hint that I’d like to slink into the specially modified Marguiles Theatre at the Mackinac and finally take my seat, but Marcus was clearly in the conversation for the long haul, oblivious: “Yeah, I thought about seeing it, but there aren’t any reviews online and I’m more in a mood to laugh today. So I’m going to see Two Brides and a Groom with some friends.”

Enough was enough: I liked Marcus but I was intent on escaping he afternoon with a shred of my dignity intact. “Well, I’m going to the theater to see if my date abandoned me or just went into the movie without me.” My tone (and my past experiences with girls, if Marcus had any inkling of that) made it clear that I strongly predicted the former.

I bid him a curt goodbye and entered the theater, my armful of popcorn and soft drinks (meant for two) shifting and leaking uncomfortably along the way. The theater was very avant-garde, with leather benches almost like pews instead of seats; to my surprise it was lit up and the screen was dark, despite the fact that the movie must have started ages ago. People were milling about, most of them dressed for the occasion like a night at the opera, making me feel very conspicuous in my business casual slacks and polo.

I went to the front of the theater to try and see if my date was in any of the seats, but I couldn’t get a very good look at half of the seats due to a bizarre divider that (I thought) ought to be in the way of the mover projector and cast a giant shadow on the screen (then again, perhaps it was the projector). Disappointed if not surprised that I couldn’t see Aimee, I made my way back into the middle of the theater…only to hear Aimee’s distinctive liting voice call for me from above.

To my shock and extremely pleasant surprise, she had been saving me a spot on one of the upper benches by laying bodily across it, something made possible only by the pew-like layout (I saw a lot of sorority girls in other nearby “pews” doing the same once I knew to look for it). Aimee sat up as I approached; I took in that pretty red dress, the same dress she was wearing when we reconnected. I feel awful for assuming the worst about her.

Turns out that I came in during an intermission. I put the soda and popcorn where Aimee can reach them just as the lights dim. The “pews” all move forward on silent hydraulics as they do so; I realize that everything is designed to move about as the movie plays.

The posters promised a revolutionary degree of immersion at the Marguiles, and they certainly weren’t wrong.

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French avant-garde filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins had committed a script and production plans for his masterwork to paper and blueprint before his untimely death in 1976, but he freely admitted that the technology to bring his rough vision into reality did not exist. Rumors persisted for years that he had actually finished the film but it had been suppressed by jealous peers of censors, mostly begat by a few staged and altered “production stills” Des Jardins had set up as visual aids in searching for investors willing to back a project that, by his own estimate, was “20-30 years from fruition.”

When the American director Anthony Marguiles was poring through Des Jardins’ personal archives in Lyon, looking for notes on his remake of Les trois Juliets, he stumbled across the plans for the untitled project. After Three Juliets swept the Academy Awards and won the Big Five statuettes, Marguiles had the clout to pitch the project. He presented a complete script and production designs in Des Jardins’ hand, written in English, to the bigwigs at RKO Republic, the third largest studio in 2000s Hollywood. The late director had written in English, according to his surviving notes, to achieve the same effect that Beckett had writing in French: an economy of word and style that stripped away all artifice.

The script was simple: a disparate group of people (teachers, students, professionals) found their way to a realm where the ordinary rules of existence no longer applied. The means for doing so varied, from the first journey in a dilapidated old bus to later ones hidden in a grove of orange trees; the script hinted that the world was full of such chinks to a more fluid reality, and that each one had some deep and hidden meaning for viewers to decipher. Once there, danger and freedom seemed to mix exhilaratingly in the script: the characters altered the rules of reality simply by invoking new ones, usually by association with a familiar concept. For example, being underwater and invoking the “power of Poseidon” would allow one of the travelers to breathe there; the production notes contained details of a long, loving tracking shot which started at sea level in a cenote and went straight down hundreds or thousands of feet to where an actress lounged with a mermaid tail, breathing underwater, having invoked the “power of Poseidon.” The shot continued with her awaking and swimming upward as the camera followed, breaking the surface in a flying leap that also dispelled her altered form.

Obviously the introduction of digital technology would greatly facilitate the making of Des Jardins’ film, but there were other considerations that made it astonishingly difficult to realize. There were, for instance, the dark and unpredictable entities with the same power over natural law that emerged later in the narrative, which the script hinted might be anything from natives of the strange land to projections of the sojourners’ hidden fears a la Forbidden Planet. As the tone shifted from liting and verdant to dark and urgent, the darkness was scripted to “be on the verge of escaping into our ordered world.” There were scenes which called for *the environment of the theater itself* to be altered as this came to pass, everything from dimming or undimming the lights to changing the physical arrangement of seats and walls (something which could only be achieved with a Disney-esque level of animatronic sophistication).

Marguilles struggled mightily with the technical challenges, insisting that he stick as closely as possible the Des Jardins’ original designs despite howls of protest from the distributor and theater chains. Eventually they reached a compromise: three theaters would be modified to show the film as intended, with Marguilles’ personally covering half the expense and agreeing to produce documentary films through his company to help the space turn a profit in the long run. The theaters were the IndieTastic Beverly Hills, the Avant-Garden Brooklyn, and the Mackinac Theater in Hopewell, Michigan.

The film, officially the Untitled Auguste Des Jardins Project but referred to in marketing and promotional materials as The Sacred Cenote, opened in those three theaters five years after production began and expanded to 3000 theaters worldwide one week later.

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The Cascadia Company had had plenty of accidents over the years, and much as the tried to maintain a high standard for community theater some mishaps were bound to occur.

There was the time that the fire escape set had collapsed during dress rehearsals for West Side Story, largely thanks to Debbie Hannover’s insistence that it be made out of real metal. No one was injured, but the scene wound up being played on a stepladder opening night.

Then there was the Cascadia Festival performance of Twelfth Night where the swordfight between “Cesario” and Sir Andrew Aguecheek ended with Bryan Culbert getting swatted with a blunt prop sword and breaking his nose. To his credit, he delivered his subsequent lines even as fresh blood soaked through his white gloves and even worked references to the injury into his dialogue. The show must go on, after all, even if you must be rushed to the hospital afterwards.

And who could forget the time that the pyrotechnic charges in Godspell (don’t ask) accidentally caught Harry Plover, playing Jesus Christ, on fire. They stopped the performance for that one, even though Harry escaped with only second-degree burns and managed to get off a very funny line about knowing how the burning bush felt.

Those had all entered the lore of the Cascadia Company, passed down as older members retired and new high school seniors or starry-eyed Osborn University undergrads rose up to take their place. No matter how badly someone missed their cue or how sour that last note of Oklahoma! sounded, they said, it could never get any worse.

Of course, that was before Carl Weisschrift died of a myocardian infarction onstage as King Lear.

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“Oh, not the whole world,” the demon said, daintily sawing at its nails with a file. “But for everyone inside the Bijouplex, it’ll be the Book of Revelations. The end part, with the fire and such, not the boring intro.”

“Why tell me this, then?” Irv asked.

“Pure sport. Every few decades my lads do a little bit of Armageddon here or there. You know, to keep our hand in. But it can get a little dull–screams and seared flesh and the like. So every now and then we’ll make things interesting by telling someone about it and watching them scurry about trying to do something.”

Irv was on his feet. “You mean I can’t stop it?”

“Did I say that?”

“Well, can I?”

“Perhaps,” the demon grinned coyly. A whiff of brimstone filled the room as it exhaled. “But you’d best be quick about it. Look Who’s Oinking begins at 5:10, and there won’t be any theater left for the 7:30.”

Of course, the play was all just an excuse for playing with the props and costumes. Parents, sitting in the audience, seem to think that their kids sit quietly with their hands in their laps until it’s their cue.

Clearly, they don’t remember what it’s like to be a sixth-grader.

While we kids with bit parts were waiting around, whether it was rehearsal or opening night, we’d break open the backstage stash and engage in a little impromptu roleplaying. The girls liked to giggle and try on various hideous dresses left over from period pieces or long-ago contemporary productions, while the boys were all about the prop guns.

Our school had the great fortune to have put on a lavish version of Guys and Dolls circa 1985, which meant gangster costumes and prop guns galore. Enough fedoras, zoot suits, Tommy guns, and pistols to go around (except for Jimmy, who had to make due with the crossbow from “Wild Geese: The Musical”). Things broke down very much along class lines, with the most popular kids (and therefore the ones with the best roles) doling out goodies as they saw fit.