Theatre Review: Stardust
Set inside the Sassafras Saloon in Hollywood, Stardust initially sounds like a more mystical version of House of Spirits, with guests imbibing cocktails while interacting with the inhabitants of the fictional Hotel Dion, a liminal space between worlds and times, where mortals fulfill their dreams and ascend to the stars. However, instead of a free-roaming immersive experience, Stardust turns out to be an interactive play much like John Krizanc’s seminal Tamara, in which the audience is free to follow whichever characters they choose.
Participants can jump between half a dozen separate story threads (which eventually weave together at the end), but it is probably best to choose one thread and follow it to its conclusion. Each viewer’s experience will vary according to their choices, so as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
Stardust Theatre Review: Set Up & Stories
Upon purchasing your ticket, you receive an email from Attica, architect of the Hotel Dion, in which she explains the nature of her creation and advises her guests to carefully consider what they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their dreams and desires. This may sound like a setup for an episode of Fantasy Island, but she also warns of a looming darkness that threatens her life’s work. In fact, little of Stardust is concerned with fulfilling your dreams; the lion’s share is focused on resolving the various character arcs, but that does not become apparent until you arrive.
After checking in and getting a drink ticket or two (depending on whether you pay for General Admission of VIP), you fill out a questionnaire; the results provide a suggestion about which character you should follow. After some time time to order a cocktail and peruse your surroundings, the event kicks off with a musical performance from the balcony above the bar, after which Attica appears and lays out the exposition.
Her time is coming to an end, and she fears the Hotel Dion will not survive her. The cause of her alarm is her daughter, Iris, who is apparently the personification of the hotel itself. Dressed in a full body suit that resembles Gozer the Gozerian, Iris is filled with resentment over being the means by which mortals achieve their dreams while hers go unfulfilled. Her intention is to ascend to the stars herself, but this will leave the hotel’s current residents eternally trapped in limbo, unable to ascend or return to Earth.
At this point, the audience splits up, following the various characters throughout the premises. The mortal residents of Hotel Dion are afflicted with amnesia by Iris, so their goals involve recovering lost memories. Each story is self-contained, but there are similar narrative beats: one character recovers her diary but some pages are are torn out; another discovers a photo album but some pictures are missing. These stories tend to be grounded and relatable, but there is problem with becoming fully engaged with them: we know that resolving thee individual dramas may be pointless, because their ultimate fate rests on what happens with Iris.
Because Iris and Attica seem to be supernatural abstractions, one might expect their story to be more metaphysical in nature, but it turns out to be a family drama about a resentful daughter who wants to do her own thing instead of what her mother tells her to do, even if the result will be devastating for the mortal residents of Hotel Dion. Some plot elements throw sympathy her way – Attica is not telling the whole story, and there are revelations regarding the identities of the hotel staff – but Iris still comes across as selfish, her desire at odds with what is best for the other characters. The play works hard to finesse this into a satisfying conclusion, but for most of the running time it is hard to root for her when everyone else’s fate is in her hands.
Stardust Theatre Review: Action & Interaction
When Stardust kicks into action, it suffers a problem common to interactive theatre, leaving the audience uncertain about their roles: How much initiative should they take? And does it really matter to the outcome? There are clues scattered around the premises, but finding them may not be necessary in order to resolve the stories. The clues include bar codes that your smart phone can scan to open up video files, but the results depend on having a good data plan and being logged into Google docs. If not, you can wait for someone else to access the file and then listen in.
The action is staged on three levels of the venue: the ground floor of the saloon, a landing with a small room halfway up the stairs, and a large attic space with another bar at the top of the stairs. This provides plenty of space for the multiple storylines to play out, but it also creates logistical problems, with different groups going up and down the stairs or blocking the way as they wait to get into the room at the landing. Even with the available space, there is some overlap in action. You can be sitting at the upstairs bar, listening to a quiet phone conversation between an alienated young woman reconciling with her grandmother, only to be interrupted by another character sweeping in and raging about her personal problem.
Although the individual stories advance in a linear fashion, you can fragment the narrative into non-liniar form by switching back and forth between characters. This is easy to avoid by simply following one character, but you cannot avoid other audience members jumping into the story you are following, which sometimes necessitates repeated exposition to bring them up to speed. On top of this, there is also the issue of how many times you want to walk up and a steep narrow staircase, sometimes with different groups coming up or going down at the same time.
In short, staying engaged with the action can be tricky. Satisfaction with the results depend largely on how well you navigate your way through the proceedings, keeping up with your group and following its story through to the end or jumping ship and trying something else. If you attend with friends, a good strategy is to split up, follow different characters, and text updates to each other until everything converges back downstairs in the bar.
Stardust Theatre Review: Sitting in the Sassafras Saloon
If you get tired of going up and down stairs, you can relax in the bar, carousing and conversing with the characters. Of course you will miss much of the action, but you will have a prime seat for the conclusion on the balcony, and your friends can fill you in on what you missed upstairs.
This is not such a bad option, really. The Sassafras Saloon is a wonderful venue, and the themed cocktails crafted for the event are fantastic. Also, you can enjoy extended character interaction without the pressure of trying to resolve their dramatic crisis.
At the end of the evening, Stardust‘s separate storylines converge at a satisfying destination which makes the journey worthwhile, even though the path getting there is rockier than it should have been. Those dedicated to making the trip will find their time rewarded, but those who prefer taking a short cut may have just as much fun sitting in the bar and waiting for the conclusion to come to them.
Our rating of Stardust
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Combining elements of immersive experience and interactive theatre, Stardust is an event whose potential depends on the audience experiencing it, which can vary enormously depending on the decisions they make. Our personal experience may be an outlier, but the storyline we started following, involving Iris and Attica, lost our interest when it became too repetitious. We began on the ground floor with Attica, who explained her back story, then led us up to the second floor where she explained herself to guests who joined us on the way. After that, we went back downstairs, attracting even more newcomers, so once again Attica explained herself to them. By the time she headed back upstairs with yet more newbies trailing along, we checked out before listening to the entire backstory a fourth time.
Jumping into other storyline lines led to some engaging interaction with characters wrestling with interesting dilemmas and looking for help, but we found it difficult to fully engage with them because we knew that resolving their story could turn out to be pointless if Iris had her way.
We were also a bit turned off by the fact that finding clues did not necessarily lead anywhere. Upon arrival, we discovered four pages secreted in different locations, which seemed to provide a key to some kind of code, but they never figured into the stories we followed. The bar codes that opened video files were also frustrating – sometimes playing on our smart phone, sometimes not. Although one of characters encouraged us to access the files individually in order to get the full effect, this just ended up wasting time, so we ended up watching the videos on other people’s phones.
In the end, we enjoyed the resolution of the Iris-Attica conflict, which dovetailed nicely with the other stories, but we had the most fun hanging out at the bar afterward and talking over the event with other customers. We suspect that hardcore fans of interactive theatre will enjoy Stardust, so we are giving it a recommendation, but we do not think the VIP Experience is worth the extra money. You get one more drink, plus the opportunity to arrive early, but you can just as easily spend extra time inside the venue after the play is over.
Stardust continues at the Sassafras Saloon through November 20, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays from 7-9pm. VIP experience begins at 6:15pm, but guests are welcome to arrive earlier for drinks and snacks. The Hotel and bar remains open after the experience ends at 9:00pm; guests are invited to stay. (Update: Stardust has finished its run.) Bring a charged cell phone and wear comfortable shoes. Masks and proof of COVD-19 vaccination or a recent negative test are required. There is an open bar with alcoholic drinks available for those 21 and up. Masks will be required for the performance. The address is 1233 Vine Street, Hollywood. Tickets are $55 for general admission (includes one drink ticket), $85 for VIP admission (includes two drink tickets and exclusive character interaction before the show), with a discount price of $39 per ticket for students and groups of four or more. Get more information at altereainc.com/stardust.
Stardust is directed by Alexander Whitover and produced by Alterea Inc. (www.altereainc.com).