Theater Review

Outdoor 'Art Heist' at ATTPAC isn't the smooth criminal it wants to be

Outdoor 'Art Heist' at ATTPAC isn't the smooth criminal it wants to be

Art Heist
A scene from the original Art Heist in Vancouver. Photo by Diane Smithers

A product of pandemic performing arts, the touring experience Art Heist has devised yet another way to consume culture in a safe setting.

Canadian theater artists TJ Dawe and Ming Hudson developed the 90-minute show for last year's Vancouver Fringe Festival, framing it as an outdoor walking tour in which small masked audiences move from actor to actor as the story advances.

It's currently being presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center, in front of and around the Winspear Opera House in Sammons Park, after first stopping in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston. Groups depart every half hour and follow guides in the form of FBI agents and insurance investigators.

Be sure to charge your phone beforehand, as you're asked to watch, read, and listen to clues along the way (side note: some attendees I spoke to said they received the clues via email well in advance, others got them about an hour before their start time. I didn't receive anything, which made consuming the info during the show difficult).

It's a clever concept and certainly a way for folks to get out and do something different, but Art Heist misses so many opportunities to be better than it is.

Based on the real-life robbery at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, when half a billion dollars in paintings disappeared and have never been recovered, the unsolved crime introduces you to four main suspects.

Some of the guides and suspects are given microphones but some aren't, which makes it extremely hard to hear with the planes flying overhead and traffic along Flora Street.

Likewise, some performers are better at gently steering the action so that incriminating statements are made or suspicious facts are revealed. Others are happy to let the audience run wild in a tangential direction or simply stand in awkward silence when questions aren't forthcoming.

The overall pace drags, and your enjoyment depends far too much on the audience's personalities and their willingness — or refusal — to be outgoing.

A conscious choice was also made by the production to ignore gender, which means three male characters are played by female actors. It's an admirable decision that provides more equitable opportunities, but it's also confusing. Since the show's details are based in fact, it's difficult to remember who is supposed to be who (tiny ID badges do nothing to help from even a foot away).

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the entire experience is that there is no ending. Even though your group votes on who is the most likely suspect, no further information is offered about where the crime stands now.

Some quick Googling reveals that in 2014 the FBI identified the two men who posed as cops and actually carried out the theft (though they both died within a year of crime and are not included in this show). Another 2019 update mentions where one of the suspects is after being recently released from prison. Obviously this case is famously unsolved, but a bit more than, "Thanks for coming, folks!" is needed so the audience doesn't also feel robbed.


Art Heist runs at the AT&T Performing Arts Center through April 18.