As you log you into tonight’s theater Zoom, one big question looms: will this one have a fourth wall?
So far I’ve run into two kinds of live Zoom plays, broadly speaking. One tries to conjure a theatrical world as closely as possible. Much like the stages that used to sit before us, these readings present their theatrical world as wholly real, and stick to it.
Which is how one ends up in the strange position of logging into MCC’s reading of Alan Bowne’s Beirut and being immediately greeted with Oscar Isaac’s silent, piercing gaze.
On the other end of things, there is the smaller, scrappier Zoom play that does not bother to try and convince you it’s anything but. These zooms prove reminiscent of that show you saw at the New Ohio, or the Connelly, which opened with actors wandering out and waving: “This is a play, welcome to the play.” Except instead, it’s the smiling face of a director, or artistic director, still adjusting the sound levels as they thank us for logging on.
A great recent example of the scrappier approach was a marathon reading of The Honeycomb Trilogy, Mac Rogers’ three-part saga of alien invasion and its aftermath. Honeycomb was ambitiously offered on a single Saturday, beginning at 2pm and running to about 10pm, with two brief breaks. The saga opened not with creepy staring, but a warm introduction from its bubbly director Jordana Williams.
Reflecting on these two readings, the contrast seems all the more notable since the plays share some DNA. Both Beirut and Honeycomb offer dystopian visions of the future which connect (kinda, sorta) to our current moment. Bowne’s Beirut is more obviously relevant. In an imagined near-future (the play was written in 1987), New York’s lower east side has become a walled-off prison for AIDS-infected citizens. Fearful of contamination and an uncontrollable spread, the “negatives” have locked away anyone who tests positive – even the asymptomatic, like our protagonist Torch. His former lover Blue, a “negative”, sneaks into the camp to see Torch, and soon the two are struggling to keep their hands off one another.
Sticking to your theatrical world and staying in character are, for online theater, the tougher aks. You can’t pause for, or acknowledge, any technical errors or glitchy transmission (from which Beirut did suffer) without breaking that spell. Yet the slightest little error can be a big deal, like a lingering Skype logo just over Isaac’s shoulder. That logo disappeared in seconds, but as with a dropped line or missed sound cue, the audience gets taken out of it. Of course we’ll be forgiving, and say nothing, and try to throw ourselves back in, but the challenge remains.
With Beirut specifically, the text posed challenges alongside these struggles in format. Bowne’s play is an engaging and often tender work, which occupies a significant place in theatrical history. But in this case, its obvious timeliness didn’t actually resonate in any deeper way. The characterization of Blue is misogynistic and dated, while the play’s key dramatic question – will the two give in and make love? – doesn’t find a connection with the big questions we’re asking ourselves right now. A form not quite up to the technical challenge, met with an overly self-satisfied artistic choice, made for a rough combination.
Still, after the strictness of Beirut, I was a little surprised to join Honeycomb and find a more raggedy operation. Chat was open, allowing anyone to type at any point “oo love this part” if they so desired (there was only a little of this). Some cast members had background photos of the show’s set while others did not, seemingly at random. One actor may or may not have realized that her cat, perched on a bed behind her, had joined in a featured role. And between each play, the full cast and crew would switch their videos back on and wave a warm hello – right after bugs had just landed to wreak possible havoc.
So why did Honeycomb work so much better? Shouldn’t undermining your own little theatrical world, even within a zoom, hurt the work rather than help it? Strangely not. Firstly, you dodge the potential ruin of technical issues, since the affair is too casual for them to have much impact. An artistic weight gets lifted, since the event is not straining to present itself as god’s gift to the quarantined. And it allows viewers permission to duck in and out, if they need to – which is realistic to what home theater viewing is like.
In this context and style of presentation, the big questions of Honeycomb also hit harder. At the close of the first play, an alien species attaches itself to our planet to save their own existence, reverting ours to a pre-industrial civilization in the process. A team of human scientists invited the aliens, hoping that a “reset” of our society – combined with a necessity to work alongside those unlike us – might lead to a better world. If we have to start over, having learned from our mistakes, could we do it better this time?
In the following two installments of Rogers’ trilogy, chances for a restart are mostly squandered, as we likely will squander what positive opportunities we have now. Still, there are glimmers of hope. And if the play left you too gloomy, never fear: moments after the final line, a smiling, familial cast will all switch their videos back on and wave a warm hello. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just theater.