Journey Into The Tempest
From first hearing about After Hours Theatre Company and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ co-production of The Tempest: An Immersive Experience, Last Call Theatre Company Director Ashley and I were immediately curious about the way that the two formats and companies would combine. How do you combine a classical, scripted structure like William Shakespeare’s work with the often explorative and interactive structures of immersive? The answer in this case seemed to be: use immersive devices to engage the audience from the get-go and give them an interactive primer on the text, equipping them with knowledge that will guide them as they watch Shakespeare. Effectively, the immersion elevates and aids the Shakespearen classic without fundamentally transforming it.
The first hour to twenty minutes of the piece (depending on your entry time, but more on that in a moment) immerses the audience in an introductory scene of the ship and subsequent shipwreck. Even prior to this moment, we found the actors well-equipped to handle audience interaction, playing off of two members of the ship’s crew before entering the ship and meeting some of the main cast. I found this choice smart in two ways: First, in the case of the unnamed crew members, it allowed for some actors with strong immersive experience to engage the audience with interactions without necessarily requiring every actor be able to handle both immersive and Shakespearen performance. Second, when we did meet some of the main cast, it was largely the uniformed characters in larger group scenes that are thus harder to tell apart, so it gave us initial people to keep an eye on and meet. Additionally, the production design of this scene was transportative, with sets, lighting, and sound that created the sense of a ship on a calm sea suddenly struck by an unexpected storm. I occasionally chuckled as actors were tossed about by swells in the waves that none of the audience passengers felt, but on the whole found this a lovely introduction to the world of the play.
As an immersive person, I would have loved further interactions available on the ship -- we had a great time playing liar’s dice with Antonio and Sebastian and talking to the navigator about his map while someone else swabbed the deck and one (un)lucky audience member found themself steering when the storm hit. If more activities were offered, though, I absolutely would have engaged with them. It’s worth noting, though, several audience members just sat at the side and watched during this scene, so the desire for interaction is coming from the immersive-going side of the audience, and may have not been a desire for regular Shakespeare-going audiences. The only true complaint I had about this introductory ship section is that I did get misgendered a time or two. I understand when this happens -- it’s easy for people to read me as the wrong gender, and especially immersing people into an older world, the honorifics people use are gendered. But I still wished there were slightly better immersive mechanics or training to prevent this.
After the shipwreck, we were thrust onto the island that would become the stage later down the line. The space was clearly set up for a theatrical performance, with audience seats on three sides and a central stage space, but also well-themed like an island and had different side spaces to explore and solve puzzles in. Ashley and I immediately hit the ground running solving the puzzles in the space. They presented a good level of challenge, with tips in the program and actors in the area available to offer hints for those in need of assistance. The puzzles gave us a sense of piecing together the backstory of the island, particularly surrounding Caliban, Miranda, and Prospero (and, secondarily, Ariel). Admittedly, some of the details of the story could be overlooked once the puzzle answers were found -- I doubled back at intermission to read journals I had tossed aside once I had found their clues prior to the show. The production design in the specific, immersive spaces of Miranda’s Sandbox, Ariel’s Hollow, and Caliban’s Cave felt detailed and enchanting, drawing us into both the magical and natural character of the island. The larger space at times felt more barren, but in this pre-show with actors around to interact with and a determined directedness to find and solve puzzles, the neutrality of the main space didn’t detract.
As part of the first group to solve all of the puzzles, we gained access to a small, secret space only accessible this way: Prospero's Cell. This, and a small paper prop we took home from the space, were a delightful reward for having solved the puzzles. I personally wished that there was a bit more to interact with in this space (you may sense a theme), like a final series of easy, magical interactions for us to perform. But, nevertheless, we enjoyed the accomplishment of accessing this space, found the one main interaction with the space fun to execute, and loved getting to see the specificity of design in the inside of the space.
After all of this, we celebrated at the bar with cocktails expertly designed by Spirit Guides Cocktails, using pearls from the VIP experience as drink tickets. Having entered during the early VIP time, we had about ten or fifteen minutes left after we finished the puzzles to sit back and relax before the performance began. The show offers three different entry times: an early VIP experience time, a regular entry time 20 minutes later, and a latest entry time 20 minutes after the previous. Additionally, they offer premium seating or regular seating for the latter two entry times (VIP also includes access to all seating). We thoroughly enjoyed having VIP tickets to have first access to the puzzles, and our front row seats definitely elevated a couple moments of interaction during the show. That being said, I didn’t find the seating necessary to enjoy the experience. Similarly, the VIP entry time is not necessary to fully solve all the puzzles, though we would definitely recommend the earlier of the two regular entry times if this is a goal. During intermission, people can continue solving puzzles, and this time would likely make up for anything missed by starting after the VIP entry time. For those just wanting to watch Shakespeare, though, the latest entry time is likely desirable to not have to wait too long for the show to get started. Essentially, our VIP tickets enhanced our experience of the event, but aren’t necessary to fully enjoy it.
When the theatrical performance began, I had a definite switch in my mindset from the puzzle-solving and exploration of the pre-show into watching Shakespeare during the show proper. The immersive exploration definitely gave me knowledge and an introduction to the island and ship’s inhabitants that I took with me into the performance, but there was still a shift towards watching theatre to make when the show began. In typical Shakespearean fashion, the play has some asides written in, and these and a few other moments were staged with more interaction than an average Shakespearean production. On the whole, from the moments the house lights dim, you’re watching a slightly more interactive version of a typical Shakespeare show.
The production itself had several theatrical moments we enjoyed. The moments of magic within the show were well-staged and added to the excitement of the space. Several actors have clear Shakespearean acting chops: Rodney Gardiner’s Antonio had a subtle nuance that elevated the political intrigue within the show, and Kay Sibal gave depth to Miranda beyond a simple romantic interest and daughter. KT Vogt and Dan Parker made delightfully comedic choices as Stephano and Trinculo, though I did find myself wishing the comic relief side characters weren’t the only two characters of size in the show. On the whole, we appreciated the comedy in the show, though Ashley and I have been known to be the only two laughing during Shakespearean histories, so we’re easy marks here. The costumes from the characters from Milan were crisp and well-done, with swords shining on the nobles’ sides. The islanders, however, wore leotards that failed to fully evoke the character of the island. The spirit of air Ariel, for instance, didn’t truly embody their element in their visual design. Caliban stood out more positively, for having an earthy design that separated him from the rest of spirits. Generally, the aspects of the production that were given careful attention caught my eye and positively contributed to a sense of creating the world. Those that had less attention given to them felt more glossed over and sparse, like the spirit ensemble costumes or the lack of details in the larger space that became more noticeable when sitting back and watching as opposed to looking for puzzles to solve in specific, smaller spaces.
Wayne T Carr as Caliban & KT Vogt as Stephano in The Tempest at Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, co-produced by After Hours Theatre Company (2023). Photography by Brian Hashimoto.
Coming from a theatre background and having familiarity with The Tempest, I had hesitations going in around producing this piece during these times. The play has themes surrounding captivity and enslavement of the island’s native inhabitants that I worried would lack a nuance or sophistication. The production tackled these issues decently within the bounds of the script. Chris Butler’s Prospero gives a performance that doesn’t downplay any of the awful things the character does during the play, while also generating enough sympathy as one of the show’s leads that we appreciated seeing his character growth. Additional knowledge of the island exploration emphasized Prospero and Miranda as foreign from it. Fundamentally, though, it is a show by an Englishman in the 1600s writing about these themes, and inherently has some issues from this (rewarding Prospero with his dukedom at the end, for instance).
Despite this, though, this choice of play was likely a good choice of piece for one of the production’s main goals. A note in the program from Immersive Designer Sara Beil discusses wanting this production to feel like Shakespeare that is accessible to everyone, using immersive onboarding to give people a more interactive version of an education packet you might get before a school matinee. The immersive section of the piece absolutely accomplished this for us, and the show choice itself has a little bit of a lot of common Shakespearean plots -- betrayals of noblemen found in tragedies or histories, romantic plotlines, comic relief duos, etc. While it may not perhaps delve into themes with great complexity, it allows for an easy engagement with Shakespeare aligned with these production goals.
Ultimately, I’d recommend this piece for people that enjoy both Shakespeare and immersive content, those who just want to see The Tempest, or anyone who’s Shakespeare-curious. For those just into immersive entertainment, you’ll ultimately end up watching a 2-hour long Shakespearean play, so if you know that’s not for you, you may not enjoy yourself. But for anyone who wants to see a Shakespearean show -- particularly anyone who may be cautious about understanding the language or plot lines of a renowned classical writer -- the immersive onboarding hits the mark in achieving the production’s goals of accessibility.
-Sabrina Sonner, Editor of The Latest Call
Editor’s Note: This review was written after Last Call Company Director Ashley Busenlener and myself (Sabrina Sonner) attended opening night with complimentary VIP press tickets for the show. The show runs March 16th through April 16th. More information about the show including how to buy tickets can be found on the Shakespeare Center’s website: https://www.shakespearecenter.org/the-tempest/.