Have we as a culture ever truly given the Sims their due? I suspect not. But after briefly stepping into a fabricated realm of airships and robots for my first virtual reality theater experiment, “Miranda: A Steampunk VR Experience,” I have a newfound respect for how those digital denizens of SimCity navigate a virtual unreality.
Plugging in, strapping in and booting up like Neo entering the Matrix, I used a loaner Oculus device and a gaming laptop for the 25-minute-long experience, presented by Tri-Cities Opera, LUMA Projection Arts Festival, Enhance VR and Opera Omaha. (“Remember when your Game Boy Color was the freshest piece of tech on the market?” this old-fogey millennial asked herself.)
I was transported to a waiting room, an open space in a floating structure with a giant TV set, filing cabinets, lofty ceilings and, outside the windows, dirigibles skating through a powder-blue sky. This is a steampunk world; think “The Golden Compass” and “Mortal Engines” — goggles, gears, huffing and puffing machines and enough anachronisms to make your head spin.
First presented live in 2012 by the Here Arts Center in Manhattan, “Miranda,” with music by Kamala Sankaram and a libretto co-written with Rob Reese, hosts you as a juror in this virtual world. A diet-pill heiress named Miranda Wright has been murdered, so explains a robot called D.A.V.E. in a forum that’s both a court of law and reality show. We’re meant to figure out who’s guilty: her mother, father or fiancé?
That’s it as far as the scant plot goes; under Alison Moritz’s direction, the experience takes you through re-enactments of scenes leading up to the murder. You spy on Miranda as she finds a suspicious note that implicates her family business — the details of which are never revealed — and she questions her parents and fiancé. All this while the characters sing (the actors perform together live via avatars, using motion-capture technology), accompanied by musicians.
“Miranda,” which ran for nine free performances, was viewable any of three ways: full VR; interactive desktop edition; and live on YouTube (where it is still available). But it made little sense except in VR. The ability to be present in the space — looking around the victim’s home, for example — justified the virtual medium. As for the desktop and YouTube versions, let me ask: Have you ever been the unwilling spectator while someone else actually plays a video game? Not much fun.
So a VR headset, for those who had real-world dollars for the device, was essential. And yet the production barely used it to its full abilities. The re-enactments happened around the viewer, and though you could glance around the space, you couldn’t investigate; you didn’t interact with the players in the story, or with other viewers, begging the question of just how immersive this production is.
One answer, I’d venture, were the detailed visuals. They were remarkable: The floorboards showed the stains and discolorations of the wood; shadows moved in the creases of Miranda’s skirt; a haze of orange light hung in one hallway, the smallest dust motes slowly fluttering down.
And yet for each fascinating detailed reproduction, there were discomforting dips into the uncanny valley. My eyes couldn’t help but focus on the characters’ feet, hovering ever so slightly off the ground; their mouths, unmatched to the words they sang; and their jerky limbs, sometimes moving in the wrong direction. In one scene I studied a finger on Miranda’s right hand as she made a phone call; the middle knuckle was double-jointed.
This is all to say that there was too much to take in. Virtual reality, steampunk, a murder mystery, an opera — the result was a production that was everything and nothing all at once.
This is true of the music, too, which, careening from orchestral to rock to perky pop, felt incohesive in such a fleeting show. The performers did their best under the circumstances. Leela Subramaniam, as Miranda, and Trevor Martin, as her fiancé Cor, traded off in a lively counterpoint that paired their soprano and baritone. And the tenor Quinn Bernegger made for a zippy D.A.V.E., though he and the rest of the cast — Tahanee Aluwihare and Timothy Stoddard, as Miranda’s parents — didn’t have enough to do.
Too much pandemic-era theater has tried to recreate the live experience without success. “Miranda” deserves credit as the first production I’ve seen to sprint wildly down another path: creating a brief and blatantly artificial experience that embraces the technology of theater performed at a distance.
If only it hadn’t forgotten the foundational elements of theater as an art form. Something human. Something real. I’m not ready yet for the world of the machines.