Review: THE TEMPEST: AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE at After Hours Theatre Company and The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles

A disjointed coupling of escape room and Shakespeare.

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Immersive designer, Sara Beil, hits the nail on the head in her program note for The Tempest: An Immersive Experience, a co-production between After Hours Theatre Company and The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. She diagnoses, "These days, the word 'immersive' is everywhere. It's a big buzzword that can mean anything (...)." It is a word thrown around so much that it is hard to know what to expect from a production billed as "immersive". In the case of The Tempest, audiences are thrown into an exquisitely designed challenge that begins on a ship setting sail for Milan, then intercepted by (you guessed it) a tempest and shipwrecked on a mystical island.

Once on the island, audiences can unearth a thoughtful series of riddles and clues which have a simple but satisfying pay-off. The integration of technology, spacial design, photo ops, and attention to dramaturgical detail are exquisite. The whole experience took my friend and I about 45 minutes to complete if you account for the time it took to get our island-themed cocktails. Actors playfully interacted with us, we got a great picture for instagram, and as a stand-alone experience, it was entirely satisfying.

If this collaboration had taken note from Punchdrunk's highly successful immersive Macbeth (Sleep No More) or A.R.T.'s long-running immersive Midsummer (The Donkey Show), perhaps scenes would have been performed in the beautiful structures sprinkled about the island space. Perhaps audiences would mill about as Ferdinand built a wall about them. Perhaps we would have been thrown into Ariel's horrifying illusions just as we were thrown into the conjured storm in the beginning. If any of those things had happened, chunks of belabored text could have been foregone in favor of visual storytelling (just as Julie Taymor did with her Tempest which she later adapted for film), the energy of the evening would have felt more consistent, and audiences would feel like they had attended a true co-production between two companies. Instead, after the excitement of the participatory pre-show, we are sat down in a hodgepodge of rickety, old chairs and spoon-fed a mediocre staging of The Tempest. The whole evening takes on a feeling that Beil warns against in her program note; the immersive elements become a gimmick, a brief reward for taking our medicine.

Chris Butler is a young Prospero, but his grasp of the language is unparalleled by anyone in the cast. This was my second time being treated to one of his Shakespearean performances (I was lucky enough to catch his Othello a few years ago, and it's a performance I will never forget). His trademark seems to be knowing what he is saying, and saying it with every fiber of his self down to his toenails. Elizabethan verse has never sounded so contemporary as when it flows out of his mouth and thus it is easy to follow the flow of every thought he expresses. His Prospero makes no apologies for his youthful energy, maintaining a ruggedness and Orson Welles-esque suaveness that make for a surprising characterization.

Rodney Gardiner's Antonio fuses energy into some of the deadliest scenes in the play. Every time Alonso's consort of men enter, one can hear every chair creak as audiences shift and settle for another low-energy sequence of too many men just standing about the space. Jin Maley's Ariel is rigidly confined in their physicality, and the payoff when they are released is almost enough to justify the choice.

On opening night, two young children sat in the front row, and Daniel T Parker's Trinculo with KT Vogt's Stephano should by right have had them rolling in the aisles. But the comedic duo play their respective roles with so little nuance- they enter screaming and maintain the same level of screaming throughout the entire performance- that any elements of clowning become too muddied to garner real laughs. It quickly becomes redundant to see them bulldoze every text joke with feigned drunkenness that starts too high and builds nowhere.

Michael Roth has composed a stunning score that traipses into the realm of musical theatre at times. Unfortunately, the simple harmony lines are beyond the capabilities of the performers in this production, and while every song starts strong, by the chorus, at least one singer has slid at least a half step in one direction or the other. Even solos incorporated into the piece become so pitchy that they leave an air of haphazardness lingering long after the final notes have been plunked into the space.

I don't want to call out the designers individually, but the overall look of the show is cheap and tacky. The set which was so exciting to explore is so displeasing to stare at and ineffectively laid out for stage pictures. The costumes seem to be a party store approximation of Lost in Space. The lights and sound constantly shift, seeming to want to signify something, but unsure of what in the text they are trying to augment. I don't want to name the designers because it feels like the captain of the ship, director Ben Donenberg, has steered this crew directly into a storm. Margaret Atwood, in her Tempest adaptation Hagseed, writes that "The Tempest is not a play about an island. It is a play about a prison." This production feels like it is on the cusp of realizing how much The Tempest has to say about subjugation, colonialism, gender, patriarchy, race, jealousy, captivity, and revenge. And yet, they've settled instead for some plastic palm fronds and themed rum cocktails.

At the end of the night, we are again immersed in the world of the show. It's a simple delight, but they stamp your "passport" as you disembark back into the real world. Another glimpse of what this co-production could have been. What would it have meant for The Shakespeare Center to trust that audiences could wean enough exposition from an immersive experience that they could start the play part-way through? What would it have meant to intersperse elements of participation throughout the piece? If we start the evening as passengers on King Alonso's ship, why are we being presented a production which does not take our perspective into account? These are the questions I left with. An immersive Tempest could be really cool. I don't think The Shakespeare Center is putting on an immersive Tempest. I think they are performing The Tempest with a really baller pre-show and themed cocktails.


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From This Author - Andrew Child

Andrew is a multimedia artist whose work as a director, animator, choreographer, performer, and designer has been seen on stages and screens all over Boston, Argentina, and Italy. His writing&nbs... (read more about this author)


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