Hocus Hyper Focus

Smaltz, Anita /Detroit Metro Times/26 March 2003: 7                                     

In the beginning, there is a darkness. A royal introductory tune of swirling electro-horns and synthesized harps shoots through the room as if you’re approaching King Arthur’s court, in space. After a screaming mechanical halt, on a floor-to-ceiling screen the words “Another Time-Another Place” stretch across the blackness in dramatically pumped-up white type, like you’re watching an old school outer-space serial thriller. But don’t expect mutant mole people to start attacking their silver-suited masters on Mars, because this is Shakespeare.

The Tempest, as you you’ve never seen it before, is playing-virtually-now through April 26 at Henry Ford Community College, packed into a tight hour and 15 minutes. Prospero is still wronged out of his dukedom; he’s still marooned with his beautiful daughter, Miranda; he still employs the preternatural services of the spirit Ariel and the misbegotten monster Caliban. But this time around, Ariel is a golden, Metropolis-influenced, art deco robot with a sleek, bolted and virtual physique. And the characters work their moonstruck magic not from an island, but from a planet.

Directed and concocted by George Popovich, director of theater arts at HFCC since 1985, this high tech Tempest is a brainchild that’s been brewing since Lawnmower Man, with its tempestuous mixture of live action and virtual reality. Popovich wanted to try that mix with live theater, and after much experimentation, he and his colleague, Nick Riley, finally realized the 3D stereo look they wanted.

When it comes to high-tech know-how behind the magic, video technical director Alan Contino helps explain the spell: “We’re using polarized 3-D projection. Instead of wearing the anaglyph 3-D glasses with red and blue lenses, we have polarized lenses, one horizontally polarized and one vertically polarized, and the projectors do the same thing. We call it ‘stereo video’. Live actors and animations are filmed using a left and right eye view, and the polarized glasses allow us to converge the disparate perspectives into one three-dimensional image.”

On the large screen, a spaceship hums, glows and spins out of control between two smaller screens, which establish the surrounding atmosphere made up of the cratered surface of a luminous green orb and stars shimmering off into infinity, or seemingly so. The visuals are ominous as Ariel conjures her storm, which is shown as an expanse of bursting electrical magenta swallowing the hapless ship.

The sorcerer Prospero, played by Greg Kjolhede, is more like Obi Wan Prospero. With his long, graying hair and beard, tall staff with sphere on the top and glittering-robe clothing, he looks like a wizard whisked off a Dungeons and Dragons game board. A Shakespearean actor, Kjolhede found a challenge in the guise of his metallic femme fatale Ariel, the siren of the skies who whirls the tempest that shipwrecks Prospero’s foes. Kjolhede reflects, “When I interact with Ariel, which is pre-recorded, it’s like doing a film. I’m not actually looking at anybody. I’m just hearing the audio track, for the most part, and I have to manufacture what our relationship is. I have to make our interaction seem dynamic and in the moment.”

Another character with heavy virtual interplay is Caliban (played by Jason Mercury), the misshapen offspring of a powerful witch. Mercury slithers across the stage like a loose muscle. With his scaly, leopard-patterned body and rasta locks of plastic-coated cables that light-up green and hot red (at those special moments). He seems to manipulate objects onscreen (as tech hand John Wilson manipulates the virtual objects with a joystick), floating them around in space. Mercury says “As actors, we have the imagination that we use to create those objects in our mind, and we mime…we use our craft to create the objects for our audience, along with the 3-D [virtual] ones.”

Mercury’s words are reminiscent of the character Dr. Morbius-from the sci-fi film classic Forbidden Planet-a man who uses his unconscious id to physically manifest monsters of destruction. The film was a major influence on Popovich, not only source for sci-fi iconography to help elucidate the dense and distant Shakespearean language but because the film is loosely based on The Tempest as well-with much more nightmarish results.

HFCC isn’t the only home to virtual reality theater in the country, but it’s one of only two. The University of Kansas has been staging virtual performances since 1996. But Popovich wasn’t satisfied with the primitive programs that Kansas started with: “So what I tried to do was to refine and hone everything, not just jump not to say I had it first. We come out a little better.”

This hybrid of film and theatrical aesthetics is a high-energy triple-interplay between audience and actor, actor and screen, back to screen and audience and every combination in between, with added dimension all the way around. According to Kjohede, it’s tough not to get overshadowed by the virtual effects: “When you’re on stage with kids or animals, you really have to work hard. On stage with a giant, three dimensional robot is a lot of work too.”

As far as acting goes, the commanding presences of Kjolhede and Mercury hold an engaging cast together. Miranda, played by Natasha Rose, sports a “medieval marries the ‘60s, sexy hemline” look with thigh space boots, a glittering bronze getup that would make any Star Trek yeoman drool. All those men in metallic-eggplant, mock-military outfits with sparkly sleeves and classic rock boots tumbling in front of the rocking 3-D interior of a ship in its deep-space death throes, create a rare live ambiance, especially when the virtual sparks morph into real-life sparks on stage.

So is this just a Flash Gordon in the pan or the beginnings of a long love affair between the beauty of live theater and that ever-expanding, big-bang beast, technology? For Popovich, it’s just for one more cyber step to the next futuristic production. For sci-fi fanatics, Trekkies and especially fans of early space- and science-driven flicks (or if you just want to give your kids a taste of the classics slathered in sparkling 3-D dramatics), The Tempest a’ la Popovich is a must see.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare is at Henry Ford Community College’s Adray Auditorium (5101 Evergreen Road, Dearborn) April 2-26. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Call 313-845-6475 for tickets.

%d bloggers like this: