Everybody Walk The Dinosaur At Henry Ford College

Quinn, John Encore Michigan November 15, 2014: Online

     A T-rex sneezed on us.

     Granted, the press release for Dinosaurus! described an “immersive environment,” but I didn’t know that meant immersion in dino snot. The children around me giggled “Eww!” The Critic, securely in his second childhood and confident that there are artistic directors who dream of seeing him immersed in more toxic substances, judged “no harm, no foul.”

     Dinosaurus! is not your typical theatrical experience. It is a product of Henry Ford College’s Virtual Theatricality Lab, where Dr. George Popovich – Director of Theatre Arts and the stage director of Dinosaurus!– offers courses in the latest cinema technologies such as virtual reality, performance capture, and animation. These techniques are familiar to teens and young adult film fans, less so to a theater critic and the youngsters who shared this experience in live theater. Frankly, we were all somewhat awed. The sneeze, as well as the thunderous, stereo soundtrack (capable of shaking the walls without scaring the children), raise things to a “4D” level.

     The audience faces a 20’x 36′ 3D projection screen that provides a “stage” for the virtual characters, some eight dinosaurs, and reptiles of the Mesozoic Era – about 250 million to 60 million years ago. Interacting with them are the “live” performers, Mike Cochran and  Matt Van Houten.

     The humans are Mobil Oil employees prospecting for “black gold” when they unexpectedly break into an underground cavern sheltering a lost biosystem. The dinosaurs can talk to each other, but there’s no understanding between men and beasts. There’s even some misunderstanding between the humans. Bunk wants to capitalize on their find, Peek wants to keep the preserve secret undisturbed.

     Playwrights Edward Mast and Lenore Bensinger’s script is simple, the characters’ line deliveries are methodical, and the images are mesmerizing. This all holds the attention of the target audience, aged roughly 6 to 11. Dinosaurus! passes the success test in theater for young audiences, as the auditorium was filled with a respectful hush – the kids were that into the show.

     I can’t help but think, though: Regardless of its appeal to the very young, older patrons willing to suspend disbelief can learn a lot about film magic by seeing it demonstrated live. The suspension of belief is easy; regardless of their origins in virtual reality, the dinosaurs are – literally – fully rounded characters.

     There is no worry about catching something from that tyrannosaur’s sneeze, even though he didn’t stifle it in the crook of his elbow, as we’ve all been taught over the last few years. Actually, with those ridiculously small forearms, he couldn’t cover his snout anyway. No, the moral of Dinosaurus! is that “no-necked” mammals were a lot more dangerous to the dinos than they were to us. They’re gone; we mammals are still here.

     That’s a fact worth pondering.

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