Daniel Krane: So Joey: You and I heeded the siren call of Helen Shaw and tuned in to the final live-streamed performance of the 7th voyage of egon tichy, a digital theater piece from Sinking Ship Productions and Theater In Quarantine. The show, which remains available for streaming on YouTube, follows Egon Tichy, a lonely astronaut who gets trapped in a time loop after his ship is struck by space junk. With the help of past and present copies of himself, Tichy attempts to break out of the loop and get back to his normal life.
This play was impressive technically. There was evocatively spacey original music, animated scenic backgrounds, and seamless integration of prerecorded videos that enabled Gelb, an enjoyable slapstick performer, to act with dozens of copies of himself.
That being said, the 7th voyage of egon tichy left me cold. I was hoping I could tease out with you why a production this polished—something worth celebrating within the difficult confines of DIY pandemic theater—didn’t win over my easily distracted spectator brain.
What did you make of the play?
Joey Sims: In the earliest days of quarantine theater, I did not feel like I could exactly “review” what was being created. I definitely would not have dreamt of a negative review. The conditions were so impossible, the times so traumatic, and yet here artists still were creating work for us. So first, I want to say—I appreciate that quarantine theater has grown strong enough for me to feel comfortable saying I hated it. Thank you, artists, for crafting work so polished that you grant me permission to bash it.
Anyway, yes, I was also left cold—but not sure our reasons were the same. For my part, I am tiring of theater work that leans too heavily on “quarantine mood, amiright?” Egon is stuck in a loop. He can’t get anything done, he can’t push forward. We even see the same conversations, repeated word for word, multiple times. Writer Josh Luxenberg doesn’t do enough to develop this time loop structure. Very little changes or pushes forward until right at the end. So it felt, for me, as though the artists were leaning much too heavily on the assumption that a time loop would resonate with us all right now…well, just ’cause.
We’re past that! As virtual theater develops and changes, it need not rely on easy—or dare I say, lazy—parallels with our current moment. Early on, those parallels were enough to move me. No longer. I yearn for us to dig deeper.
Was this an issue you had?
Daniel: Maybe it’s my pandemic-induced loopiness (combined with the fact that I’m writing this while staring at my dirty laundry on the floor), but I was charmed by the squabbles between Egon Tichy’s past and present versions of himself. If being stuck at home is like being adrift in space, I’m ready to chart a path back to Earth. I also have a soft spot for a good ol’ frying pan smack, so I found the rapid-fire tussles between the many Tichys, involving double-crossings, the theft of a space suit, and Chekhov’s frying pan, diverting enough.
The clowning physical comedy was something I hadn’t seen much of online. I was also excited to hear the voices of young children near the end of the piece, after growing accustomed to only hearing Gelb’s voice. (Quarantine theater: where artist parents serve as their own child wranglers. See the delightful excerpt of Glengarry Glen Ross performed with dolls by Kathryn Hahn’s family.)
But I agree with you, the story itself wasn’t surprising to me. The show’s polish is actually what I reacted most strongly against. For me, this piece fell into an uncanny valley between in-person live performance, where we’re aware of the breath and sweat of folks working to tell a story in the same space with us, and a movie, where prerecorded performances and special effects are mediated through a screen. the 7th voyage of egon tichy, like other digital performances I’ve written positively about, gains a lot of its strength from the novelty factor of “how did they do that?”, convincingly conjuring a sci-fi film within an apartment. I felt a hollowness while watching this piece as theater, though, like an audience member trying to guess how a magician does their tricks rather than basking in the magic.
Although Gelb performed some of the piece live, I couldn’t tell what in the performance was live and what wasn’t. I missed that. Live performance asks its performers to roll with the punches and its audience members to pay attention. Some of my favorite theater memories are of accidents where performers stayed engaged in the moment, deftly sweeping up a teacup that broke unexpectedly or waiting out a cellphone ring to finish a monologue. Hiding the seams of how this production came together made me feel like my focus didn’t matter for this piece, and therefore I disengaged.
What would it mean for virtual theater to “dig deeper” and connect more intimately with audience members?
Joey: When an online piece is truly and fully live, then it has my attention, is basically what I’ve found. I know that’s not true for everyone. Friends have said they can’t stay focused on online work in any form, and, like, I get it. For me, when the performer is doing this for me, right now, that creates a pull not unlike sitting down in a theater seat, and I am able to key in.
With prerecorded work I have had more trouble, same as you. Now I realize 7th voyage couldn’t exist if it were totally live, at least not in any form close to what we saw. And more broadly, I don’t want to make this a straightforward matter of: live good, prerecorded bad. But ltheater is risk, theater is now, theater is we’re-in-this-together. And I need to feel that. Apparently parts of 7th voyage were in fact live, but I wouldn’t have known that unless you told me, so it’s kind of immaterial. I didn’t feel it.
You and I both watched William Burke’s Is It Supposed To Last? this past week, which was broadcast live by Play Company. It was messy and flawed in many respects. But when you realized Jehan O. Young was sitting in the middle of a park right now as she talked to you, or that Burke was in an empty theater right now wrapping himself in streamers, well, it felt special, like something special being created just for you right now.
So I guess I’m arguing that the best virtual pieces tie into the current moment in their form. The artists have built them from the ground up, choices of technology included, to feel true to right now. Maybe that is how you dig deeper.
Daniel: Above all, this show clarified to me the importance of expectation-setting. It was presented by “Theater in Quarantine”; a live preshow announcement from Gelb, accompanied by a countdown clock to show time, set me up to expect an Event™ and not a prerecorded production I could take in at any old time. So one offering to pandemic theater-makers: if you’re serving us up appointment viewing, I’d love to see some of the in-the-moment work that goes into the story you’re telling. That makes it special.