They come to the show empty-handed, but the children in the audience at Imagination Stage’s “Escape From Peligro Island” don’t stay that way for long. Every audience member receives a paper paddle — blue on one side, red on the other — with which to decide what twists and turns the play, written by Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer and directed by Imagination Stage Associate Artistic Director Kathryn Chase Bryer, will take.
Sitting in the dark with their paddles at the ready, the kids are driving this theatrical bus. As their votes get tallied, the actors take a breather, and the show turns down a path that is different (almost) every time.
“The show is very special,” says Dallas Tolentino, who plays “Peligro Island’s” hero, a kid called Calloway. “The audience is forced to be engaged in a way that’s different from any other show; they have a special connection with my character, Calloway, because they’re able to put themselves in my shoes.”
Calloway, he added, serves as an avatar for the audience, who hold up their paddles at critical points in the action and decide how the show must go on. “Having these intermittent voting sequences keeps them on the edge of their seats,” said Tolentino. They’re just waiting for the next opportunity to choose, and it’s empowering.”
Tolentino takes his character from a scared, friendless kid who is overwhelmed by the world and his place within in it to a confident young man, well able to conquer the bad guys and find his way home. Tolentino, a Virginia native with a bachelor’s degree in theater performance from Virginia Commonwealth University, brings some pretty impressive flourishes to his portrayal of Calloway, backflipping and karate-chopping through different iterations of “Escape From Peligro Island.”
“I idolized Bruce Lee as a kid,” he explained. “I was trying to do martial arts and theater all together.”
Kicking it: Dallas Tolentino, right, wows audiences with his martial arts and gymnastics skills.
Photo credit: Margot Schulman
Once he was admitted into the specialized high school theater program at The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Tolentino put martial arts behind him. But he’s happy to channel his inner Bruce Lee onstage, especially when it means creating a strong, capable character that many in the audience can relate to.
“I’m coming from an Asian American background — I’m Filipino,” he explained. “As a kid, I didn’t see many characters onstage that looked like me; to see an Asian-American in that lead role is incredibly important.”
Also important: Calloway’s ability to reflect the hopes and dreams of the children in the audience. “He’s kind of your underdog, your ‘Everyperson,’” Tolentino added. “In each of these worlds, he finds courage and bravery.”
And there are a lot of “worlds” in this show.
“There’s a lot to memorize, a lot of blocking to learn,” said Tolentino. “We ultimately have four shows, and within those shows, there are decisions that have to be made. In its entirety, there are eight different endings to four different shows. We never get complacent because we never know what’s going to come next.”
Vampires, superheroes, time travel, cowboys, an underwater spy adventure: the cast of “Escape From Peligro Island” is ready to do whatever its paddle-equipped audience desires.
“After our first show, Dallas said, ‘I feel like I’ve just left the Roman Colosseum,’” laughed Aaron Bliden, an actor who takes on a handful of roles depending on the whims of the paddle holders. “Kids don’t pretend to like something if they don’t.
“This show is different from other young adult shows because of the interaction and the voting and the feeling that they have agency,” added Bliden, a Maryland native who entered the D.C. theater scene armed with a two bachelor’s degrees — in theater performance and in history — from the University of Maryland.
“I got my first job out of school and decided to stick around,” he recalled. That role was “Rabbit Hole” at Olney Theatre Center. More than a decade later, he said “Escape From Peligro Island” has been “the hardest show I’ve ever done. It’s a matter of sheer mathematics!”
Tia Shearer agreed. “It is truly mentally exhausting,” said Shearer, who rounds out the cast. “It’s stunning how much extra brain power it takes to harness this script in all of its twists and turns.”
All the stories need to be perfect, even though some get chosen more often than others, and Shearer said the cast relies on the energy of the audience to help them move the narrative forward.
Shearer, who was born on Long Island and grew up in Florida, fell in love with storytelling as a kid. “I started out thinking I’d be a writer,” she said. “I loved writing stories, so it makes sense that once I found theater, it drew me.”
She opted for an individual studies program at New York University, earned a bachelor’s degree in theatrical philosophies, and moved to Nashville for a job in children’s theater. “My now-husband and I moved to D.C. purposely because we were looking for a theater town,” said Shearer, who lives in Takoma Park. “We just fell in love with this place right away.”
As an actor, Shearer said she does about half adult theater roles, half children’s theater roles. “I feel a little off if there hasn’t been a good dose of children’s theater in a season for me,” she said. “In general, children’s theater for me is exhausting in the best possible way. It’s the best kind of tired!
“It brings me joy, I love it. After a show, I usually need a juice box and a nap.”
“Escape from Peligro Island” runs through May 26 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Performances start at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays with an ASL-Interpreted performance at 1:30 p.m. May 26. Tickets start at $15. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.
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