Jonestown Through November 8, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., $20, 20 tickets per night available at table8lv.com.
Jonestown, the new immersive theater piece written and directed by Table 8 Productions’ Troy Heard, chronicling the story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, is an experience unlike any other show you’ll see in Las Vegas this year, and that extends even to venue. The show is performed indoors and outdoors at an undisclosed location north of Las Vegas, where the audience is met at the side of the road by “members” of the Peoples Temple.
From there you’re taken to a meet-and-greet session around a campfire, where actors, portraying members of the Temple, share a bit about their characters and how they came to the Temple. After a few folk hymns, you’re led to an indoor chapel space to listen to a sermon from Jones (played by Scott McAdam), taken from a recording made by the FBI. The sermon is interspersed with readings of other materials surrounding the Temple, including letters and newspaper articles. And then you’re taken outside again, where Jones, now on a throne of wood, seduces and harangues his followers—including the audience members—into drinking the poison-laced Kool-Aid. It’s a skeletal ride, both in its ghoulishness and because it feels a little incomplete.
As Jones, McAdam is fiery, charismatic and chilling. His double-speak and hyperbole from Jones’ recorded sermon are delivered with precision and gusto. And if the rest of the cast is uneven switching between roles, there are still powerful moments. Valerie Carpenter-Bernstein and Natalie Senecal, portraying members of the Jonestown camp in Guyana, carry out an impassioned debate about alternatives to killing themselves and dozens of children, and both deliver heavyweight performances that go to a place with deep emotional honesty.
Unfortunately, the piece isn’t built to support the weight of the final tragedy. The jump in location and energy from Jones’ sermon to the climax doesn’t provide enough time to truly foment the mounting horror, paranoia and hopelessness. While the performances are heartfelt and extreme, the emotional level of the final moment feels unearned, a product of the facts of the event rather than of this production, and thus, it isn’t as powerful as it could be. Jonestown is a risky experiment, and while parts of it are impressively done, it feels like the show still has some issues to work out.