Watching the magical, mystical and eye-popping production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” making its U.S. preem at New Haven’s Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas, one seems to be viewing the future of live theater — and it’s on film. The tempest this work is likely to produce among theater purists is not due to the truncation of the work to 90 minutes or even the creators’ thematic p.o.v., but rather the technical advancements that supplement its four performers with six “virtual” actors. The French-language production (with English supertitles) will no doubt amplify its buzz when it plays BAM in the fall.
Regardless of its defenders and detractors, this is a major step by the Montreal-based 4D art company. While previous pieces focused on shows that depend on abstraction, myth or fantasy — dance and avant-garde theater have best lent themselves to the group’s virtual playfulness and lyricism so far — this is the first time 4D uses a classic text-based script as a starting point.
The choice is a savvy one for the company, led by artistic directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon (also behind Cirque du Soleil’s new arena show “Delirium”). Because Shakespeare in “The Tempest” creates a dreamscape of a world that also evokes the primal, auds may be more willing to embrace things that perhaps are not quite as they seem — or at least not as they are usually seen.
Anick La Bissonniere designs an impressive, imposing and apt set that is a mysterious island unto itself, composed on piles of old manuscripts seemingly washed ashore and calcified. Michael Smith composes aural effects to match the swirling, mesmerizing imagery. Alain Lortie keeps matters under a dreamy haze of soft-focus light.
From this enchanted vantage point, Prospero (Denis Bernard) conjures a world of storm and drama — whether it’s the tempest he creates when he sends a shipload of enemies onto his shore seeking revenge or magic of a gentler kind, the type that brings forth his loving daughter, Miranda (Eveline Gelinas), and the indentured spirit Ariel (Manon Brunelle).
In the 4D version, the inhabitants of the isle are “real” and played by actors live onstage. We also witness scenes involving the washed-ashore characters played by pre-recorded actors projected and reflected onto thin air. Because these absent thesps reveal solid skills, these scenes mostly hold their own against the techno-wizardry.
But it is especially helpful that they are edited down to short bursts so they don’t test audience engagement too much. The triumvirate of directors (Denise Guilbault is the third) stages these virtual scenes with all the tools film possesses, including fadeouts, closeups, slo-mo and dramatic changes of perspective.
Perhaps because of comedy’s inherent need for audience interaction, however, the virtual clown characters of Sebastien (Patrice Robitaille) and Trinculo (Robert Toupin) lack the critical sense of timing to be as effective as the live actors.
But overall, the on-island-real/off-island-virtual conceit works well — and even goes one better. The king’s shipwrecked son Ferdinand begins as a virtual perf until the love of Miranda not only deepens his spirit but gives him substance as well, transforming him into a flesh-and-blood character onstage. It is a transcendent moment of technology and theater.
Still, the production is not just smoke and mirrors. Bernard plays a vigorous and well-spoken Prospero; while he may not have the aching poignancy at play’s end, he certainly has the majesty and intelligence to make him a force to be reckoned with, magic or no.
Brunelle is poised and powerful as Ariel. However, the idea of the same thesp also playing Caliban — while intriguing on paper as repping twin natures of good and evil — doesn’t quite have the same effect onstage with the present costumes and staging, despite the talented actress’s best efforts. Gelinas and Rouillard play the lovers with conviction, but because so many of their scenes are played upstage surrounded by a swirl of effects, the intimacy of their perfs is largely lost.
With 4D art’s latest integration of technology and theater, the mechanics further recede into the dark, leaving just the ghosts in the machine in search of a text to make them whole. With the right property, presentation and human touch, the creative potential is enormous for not only altered states but stages, too.