The immersive performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest — produced by the Los Angeles Shakespeare Center and After Hours Theatre Company — was pitched to me as an escape room meets Shakespeare, which is…different, to say the least. And, as I stood in line outside the theatre, I didn’t know what to expect.
The show is the brainchild of director Ben Donenberg (the founder and artistic director of The Los Angeles Shakespeare Center) and producer Graham Wetterhahn (the youngest producer ever nominated for an Ovation award for both a play and a musical). They came up with a crazy idea over dinner that turned into something immersive and — dare I say — magical.
And, when they say immersive, they really mean it: From the second you check in, grab your program, and get in line to enter the space, you are officially in the show. As I checked in, I received a program, a ticket that also served as my ticket for the ship, and a small pearl that I later traded to one of the ship’s bartenders for a flask of one of their signature drinks —the one with whiskey.
As you stand in line to enter the space after checking in, crew members from the boat pass by and spark up a conversation or two. “What would you do with a drunken sailor,” was my first interaction with one of the crew. If you really think about it — like really take the time to consider the question — there’s only one option: Keep them away from the steering wheel and keep the party going.
Once the eager audience members/passengers make their way into the building, which has been dressed to look like a ship, they’re greeted by the ship’s crew members, who are more or less doing what crew members do. You got the guy obsessing over the map, a few sailors looking to play a game of dice, and someone in desperate need of help swabbing the deck. While I was there, one of my fellow passengers was lucky enough to get a real hands-on experience with the mop. (So jealous.)
But disaster strikes just as you’re about to get comfortable on your little cruise to Milan: The ship has crashed, and you’re left to “swim” (walk) to a nearby island.
“Why are you all walking so casually to your deaths?”
This random, ad-libbed line is the one that really gave me an idea of what was ahead for my fellow passengers and me. We all made our way through a narrow hallway decorated with ocean and island flora before popping out into a vast room designed by Sara Biel, the immersive designer behind projects including Money Heist: The Experience, Definitely Not Clue and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest: The Immersive Experience. She’s also a producer for the show alongside Wetterhahn and a few others.
It had been a long and stressful trip: I mean, the boat sank, I had to swim to an island and, worse yet, I had no idea where anything was. That’s when I saw a fancy man in a fancy sailor’s outfit holding a map who seemed like the guy to ask. When he opened the map to show me where to go, it was entirely blank, aside from a small rectangle labeled “Bar.”
The drinks were surprisingly well thought-out for an island bar set up in the aftermath of a catastrophic accident. I ordered something called the “Flaming Amazement,” and I was amazed. Not only was the drink filled up so much that the bartender had to provide a second cup as if I had just ordered a milkshake at a diner but, before that, he lit the drink on fire and made it explode with some crazy wizard magic.
Then, after surviving the crash, getting a signature drink so big that it was overflowing from its souvenir barrel with “The Tempest” scrawled on the side, the real adventure began: The puzzles.
The puzzles serve a few purposes: One can obviously partake for the fun of it and collect a couple of souvenirs along the way but, as Wetterhahn tells LAMag, a big part of the puzzles is that “it allows the audience to do some homework before the show.” In solving the puzzles myself, I searched beaches, caves with hieroglyphs and even the office of Prospero, all of which are meant to get audiences invested in the show —but also to identify and expand on ideas that aren’t heavily explored in the play itself.
(There are staggered entry times, which allows audience members to participate in the puzzles as much or as little as they see fit.)
An hour after the first entry time, we took our seats, surrounding the stage on three sides — but the play utilized the whole space. Actors made their entrances from behind, within and around the crowd. On some occasions, crowd members even became part of the show.
As the director, Donenberg says, “The show is constantly evolving.” A big part of that evolution is the audience.
The show has seen a range of audiences, from middle schoolers to intoxicated adults and is designed to cater to everyone, from people who have typically been alienated from theatre, to those who have been fans their whole lives, to those completely new to the experience. And it works very well. During the performance I attended, there were young children — who surprisingly seemed utterly immersed in the play — young adults and senior citizens. There are very few things in this world that can hold that kind of attention across those demographics, but somehow The Tempest: An Immersive Experience does just that.
The actors — including Chris Butler (Prospero), Jin Maley (Ariel), Kay Sibal (Miranda) and many others — were all amazing with strong performances across the board. But, I have to say the stand-out performance for me was by KT Vogt, who played Stephano, the island drunk (and the comic relief).
Early in the show, I was asked, “What would you do with a drunken sailor?” Turns out the answer is to kickback and watch all their crazy antics while laughing my ass off.
When I spoke with Donenberg and Vogt after the show, they both told me that they felt that Shakespeare was their superpower — something they had pursued, accidentally or otherwise, their entire lives. After the show, I can’t help but believe it’s true.
From what I’m told, there are more projects on the horizon from these producers and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
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