Anytime a new business sets up shop in Lloyd Center's ever-emptier halls, it seems slightly strange. But everything about the historic shopping mall's latest tenant feels downright eerie.
Located on the second floor across from Made in Oregon, between Foot Locker and a shuttered educational toy emporium, the handmade sign advertising "Rod Sturgill's Spiritual Liquidation" does not begin to explain why small groups of unlikely mall rats gather outside the storefront past closing hours. Turns out, they're looking for an extended stay inside an artfully disarrayed retail space soaked in blood for an immersive performance with a title that reminds us of our mortality: We're All Gonna Die.
The Reformers, a scare-driven local troupe led by married couple Charmian Creagle and Sean Doran, design their experiential shows around existing venues to best exploit the atmospheric unease already lingering within each locale. For Lloyd Center, which a friend suggested for the company's 2019 pre-Halloween production, this meant Reagan-era aesthetics spiked with Lovecraftian dread.
"We're both children of the '80s," says Creagle, "and love the horror genre, so this was ideal for us. The mall already has this spooky thing going on. In fact, at Hot Topic the other day, they said security had run into a ghost in the Nordstrom space, which was pretty exciting."
Since returning to Portland eight years ago after spending a decade working in theater in New York City, Creagle and Doran have explored a mutual passion for "fear-based theater" and a lifelong interest in nontraditional settings for stagings through successfully more daunting immersive experiences each October. For instance, the Reformers once spun a moving tale of love and loss amid a zombie apocalypse in a Buckman neighborhood garage. At their own Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard home, they presented the Ouija board melodrama Yes No Goodbye, an original adaptation of The Shining melded with Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw.
"Let's just say we became infamous with the neighbors," Creagle laughs.
The Reformers are perhaps best known for 2017's The Van, which placed attendees in a Ford Econoline being driven to the supposed venue as the passengers slowly realized the vaguely described threat was far closer than they'd been told.
"Nothing is more terrifying," Doran recalls. "You're sure that something's going to happen to you, but you don't know when and you don't know how. I played the creature hidden in the back. When I jumped up, I was basically inches away from whomever was in that backseat, and every single time, people screamed like crazy."
Given how much the creators depend on the thrill of surprise, a thorough description of We're All Gonna Die feels unfair to prospective audiences. Moreover, the hell-for-leather, 30-minute narrative employs a willfully jumbled structure to such disorienting effect that only the broadest plot strokes ever become fully clear.
"Simple jump-scares are different than onstage," Creagle says. "When a face appears in the window, people freak out because it's an actual window and a real face next to them. We don't touch people, but we're definitely prepared for the moments where they want to engage. Sean's been slapped in the face a couple of times. Seeing people really close gives you a totally different perspective from just sitting in your seat watching. We've gone through a lot of theater in our lives, and the most exciting shows are when you're inside the story."
SEE IT: We're All Gonna Die is at Lloyd Center, 2201 Lloyd Center, on the second floor across from Made in Oregon, thereformerspdx.com. Performances are every 30 minutes beginning at 7 pm, with the last show starting at 9 pm, Friday-Saturday, through Oct. 26 and Wednesday, Oct. 30. $20.