Of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest — with its shipwrecks, storms, fairies, and monsters — is the readiest to go immersive. The play begins with said shipwreck during a massive and sudden squall at sea. After that, there’s magic, sorcery, bewitchment and enchantment galore — all taking place on a remote tropical island. Between the rollicking waves, thunderbolts and lightning, and the windswept shores always just offstage, plus locations like a monster’s cave, a fairy’s nest and a magician’s cabin to work with, it fairly begs to be turned experiential. And building a walk-through, music-infused, tech-enhanced, exploration-ready environment for the audience to wander around in before the play starts is so perfect, it’s hard to imagine ever doing it another way again. But the play’s the thing, and as lively as the staging is, the success of Shakespeare Center LA and After Hours Theatre Company’s The Tempest: An Immersive Experience still rests on the performance.
Oh brave new world, that has such people in’t.
The new production leans into the magic wielded by Prospero and his captured servant, the fairy Ariel, who does the man’s bidding in a so far fruitless quest to gain their freedom. It was they who concocted the storm in order to wreck the boats carrying the magician’s old enemies. He is the overthrown Duke of Milan, whose exile was the result of a political coup led by his brother, Antonio, in conspiracy with the King of Naples. As a dedicated scholar, Prospero is deeply knowledgeable in a range of fields, including magic, philosophy and literature. After being marooned in the coup, he’s spent much of his time on the island studying and reading books, as well as experimenting with his acquired magical powers — which he exercises to create the storm.
Hell is empty, all the devils are here!
The work’s intriguingly designed set, accessed through a soon-to-be shipwrecked vessel and a watery passageway, is a quirky island landscape with secret codes, clues, and a bar. The audience is seated almost in the round, very close to the actors, in between the set pieces between the rows. This staging also incorporated technology to great effect, with projections and sounds that amplified the immersive quality of the experience well beyond normal theatrical production. And the performances, every one of them, was on point.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Helmed by Ben Donenberg and Graham Wetterhahn, the stellar cast includes Chris Butler as an imposing, brilliant, vengeful, but witty and charismatic Prospero; Wayne T. Carr as Caliban, the creature whose righteous anger conceals a noble soul; Kay Sibal as Prospero’s wry, intelligent and self-possessed teenage daughter, Miranda; Rodney Gardiner as a telegenic, treacherous Antonio; Jin Maley as a soulful, nonbinary Ariel both flighty and substantial, dangerous and honorable; Dan Parker as Trinculo and KT Vogt as his mate, Stephano — their comedy was showstopping, their political corruption, greed and alcoholism making for belly laughs and perfect satire.
The past is prologue
The play follows Prospero’s spiritual journey as he navigates his drive for revenge and the importance of forgiveness, freedom and imagination. His closing monologue is one of the most famous speeches in Shakespearean literature — a powerful statement on the nature of forgiveness and the redemptive power of compassion. His cardinal story arc, unfolding in the context of a sorcerer’s powers that both enhance and obscure his sense of himself, is not only a timeless allegory of human nature, with instantly recognizable resonance to the thorniest parts of our current culture, but also the kind of materialization of an inner journey in tandem with hidden sources of magic and power that lends itself to an experiential, aesthetically imaginative, all-consuming presentation — very like the stuff dreams are made on.
Shakespeare Center LA, 1238 West First St., downtown; Performances through April 16, Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m.; Saturday matinee 1:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.; $35-$125; shakespearecenter.org/the-tempest.
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