Hocus hyper focus 

In the beginning, there is 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’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 once again 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 a planet, plus you get to wear funny glasses too.

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 1992. He first got the idea from simple, clunky computer-graphics programs and the film The 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 stereo look they wanted.

When it comes to the high-tech know-how behind the magic, video technical director Alan Contino helps to 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.’ We see in depth because we have two eyes, separated by an average of about six centimeters (the Inter-Ocular Distance or IOD). Live actors and animations are filmed mimicking this process, 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 top and glittering-robe clothing, he looks like a wizard whisked off a Dungeons and Dragons game board. A veteran 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 a little like doing film. I’m not actually looking at Ariel; I’m not 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 to hot-hot red (at those special moments), Caliban looks like the love child of the alien in Predator and a wayward cast member of Cats. 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 this 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. Morbeus — 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 as a 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 theater in the country. 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 go through as much as possible and refine and hone everything, not just jump 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 an added dimension all the way round. According to Kjolhede, 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 to be on stage. Well, being on stage with a giant, three-dimensional robot is a lot of work too.”

As far as the acting goes, the commanding presences of Kjolhede and Mercury hold an engaging-to-downright-shaky cast together. However, keep in mind that what brought this ensemble together was the lure of technology intermingling with drama, and a class that Popovich offered a year ago last November — virtual reality and theatrical production. But even when the most dramatically challenged players are on stage and screen, it’s as if you’re witnessing the making of a long lost Ed Wood film, and that’s still pretty cool.

Miranda, played by Natasha Rose, sports a “medieval marries the ’60s, sexy-hemline” look with thigh-high space boots, a glittering bronze getup that would make any “Star Trek” yeoman drool. And all those men in metallic-eggplant, mock-military outfits with sparkly sleeves and classic black boots, tumbling in front of the rocking 3-D interior of a ship in its deep-space death throes, create a rare, live ambience, 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 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 sparking 3-D dramatics), The Tempest à la Popovich is a must-see.

 

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

Anita Schmaltz writes about film and performance for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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