If seeing the world through different eyes is the ultimate aim of virtual reality, good theater is still the most advanced VR available

If seeing the world through different eyes is the ultimate aim of virtual reality, good theater is still the most advanced VR available
Photo courtesy Studio Theatre at Tierra del Sol

There are those who say that life is an illusion, and reality but a figment of the imagination. From Plato's cave to Dr. Strange, academic philosophy and pop culture alike have proposed that the material world is merely a thin veil, which only those possessing great spiritual power can pierce. Of course, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and today the right combination of computer hardware and/or psychoactive chemicals can serve as a Fastpass to an alternate plane of existence. But what is the price for harnessing our senses and manipulating our minds, and can we afford to pay it? Last week I had two experiences that addressed that question from completely different angles, but ultimately arrived at the same ambiguous answers.

After the recent IAAPA Expo, I opined that the attractions industry's recent embrace of virtual reality appears premature, based on the multiple meh VR systems I sampled on the show floor. But days after the convention, I was invited to Pointe Orlando on International Drive, where Zero Latency is making the best argument I've experienced so far for VR's potential. The new Main Event Entertainment center, located beneath the complex's IMAX theater, looks a lot like IAAPA itself, with all the latest arcade games surrounded by high-tech bowling lanes and an overhead ropes course. However, it's the V Play Reality facility – the first built by Australia-based Zero Latency in the United States – that sets Main Event apart from Orlando's many family entertainment centers.

I'll admit up front that Zero Latency doesn't eliminate all the issues I have with virtual reality, and even exacerbates a few of them. For starters, the headsets are far heavier than other models, and adjusting the focus forced the lens uncomfortably against my eyeball, though once dialed in they deliver an immersively wide field of view. The visuals are driven by an Alienware mini-computer worn in a bulky backpack; add in the Rambo-sized rifle and my muscles were aching after a couple of 15-minute matches.

My first Zero Latency game, a zombie defense shooter with constricted movement and no narrative, did little to distinguish itself above similar violent distractions. It wasn't until I experienced Engineerium, a physics-defying family-friendly exploration game, that I truly became a believer in VR's power to deliver a convincing alternate reality. Packs of players can see and speak to each other as they wander through a colorful Aztec-inspired sky temple, navigating floating pathways that bend and warp like a Möbius strip woven by M.C. Escher. Despite never leaving a few thousand square feet of warehouse floor, my senses insisted I was standing sideways on the side of a stone wall, a thousand miles above the ground. If Zero Latency creates additional impossible adventures and improves the ergonomics, I'll happily pay the approximately $2 per minute they're charging to take another trip.

Speaking of trips, the Villages is rarely referenced in these pages unless conservative voters or venereal diseases are involved, but a newly opened theater inspired me take the hour-plus road trip to the massive senior development. The Studio Theatre at Tierra del Sol has taken over an underutilized restaurant and remade it into a state-of-the-art black box theater, with 99 cushioned seats surrounding a three-quarter thrust stage. The facility, which features unobstructed sightlines and LED light fixtures, reminded me of Theatre Downtown, if that much-missed venue had a bigger budget.

The new company, which is an outgrowth of the nearby Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, is led by artistic director Whitney Morse, star of the theater's debut musical, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's award-winning Next to Normal. Diana (Morse), mentally ill wife to long-suffering husband Dan (Brian Zealand) and mother to neglected daughter Natalie (Emily Chelsea), doesn't need 3-D goggles to interact with imaginary avatars like her absent son, Gabe (Tyler Beauregard). And the increasingly invasive cures Dr. Madden (Brett Ricci) prescribes can't reconcile the conflicting realities each of the family members inhabit.

I didn't fall in love with a recent local production of Next to Normal, but under Orlando director Aradhana Tiwari, this harmonious ensemble (backed by musical director Gary Powell's warm onstage orchestra) makes the most of the catchy folk-rock score. Morse manages to maintain our empathy for Diana despite the depths of her biochemical descent, even if she (like Zealand) looks too youthful for the role. Most importantly, Tiwari directs her cast with clean, character-motivated choreography that clarifies the story's emotional issues, which are sure to prompt discussions during the long drive home. Because if seeing the world through different eyes is the ultimate aim of virtual reality, good theater is still the most advanced VR available.

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