I’m struggling with insomnia during this pandemic. Most nights, I fall asleep with the lights on, nodding off to a chorus of Twitter voices. On the rare occasion I tear my attention away from social media long enough to switch off the lights, I’m greeted by the anxious thoughts I’ve put off throughout the day: a deluge of uncompleted tasks, postponed calls, and missteps made along the way.
I thought of those voices while watching A School for Fools, the latest show from the Belarus Free Theatre. The show, performed in Russian with English subtitles and broadcast live from company members’ homes in Minsk, applies absurdist flair to an adaptation of Sasha Sokolov’s novella about a schoolboy with a split personality.
As best as I could follow it, the show follows Student So-and-So from the School for Fools as he battles with his alter ego and attempts to win the affection of his teacher. That I’m not able to reconstruct more of the plot speaks less to any missteps the production makes than to what the show really cares about: capturing an intensity of feeling with consistently surprising stage pictures and storytelling, rather than telling a neat, A-to-Z narrative.
We first meet Student So-and-So seated in a classroom with “School for Fools” written on a blackboard. He cackles maniacally while a gaggle of unseen voices chirp in with a flurry of dialogue spoken so quickly as to be unintelligible. In lieu of obsessing over if it made sense, this disorienting opening, one in which I knew there was no way the production could expect me to track everything that was said, gave me permission to take in the rest of the show as a general experience of delight and novelty.
And delightful it was.
Among its best innovations, A School for Fools takes full advantage of its digital platform by incorporating Point-of-View (POV) shots and unseen voices to make audiences feel like they are its unstable protagonist.
Occasionally in live theater, a director will employ the audience as an off-stage character. For example, if a character in a town hall meeting delivers a speech to the audience, a well-directed performance may implicate those audience members as attendees of that meeting, creating a powerful relationship between the performer and audience within the world of the play. With the pandemic keeping audiences at a physical remove from performers, borrowing POV shots from film and video games created a similar connection for me, building a strong identification with Student So-and-So in a way that kept me invested in the story, even when I struggled to keep up with the plot.
Having on-screen characters engage in conversation with offstage voices—often assumed to be that of the camera-holder—created the feeling of characters sharing the same environment. That direct relationship between performers is something that I have felt lacking from most socially-distanced performances online. This practical workaround of the cast’s inability to be in a room together also enhanced my identification with Student So-and-So, who hears voices in his head.
A School for Fools also linked its performers by placing set dressing in similar locations of each actor’s frame so that their rooms appeared to be part of the same set.
This scenic design “trick” made me believe that, when performers were acting directly to the side of their rooms, they were looking at and responding to one another. This proved essential for the production: investing in the relationships between characters was the thing that kept me engaged throughout the 90-minute performance.
In contrast, the show lost me during an extended solo section focused on a woman’s bureaucratic trip through a city because she lacked clear relationships with other characters. It also neglected to make use of POV shots, and thus felt like an extended monologue that I had to strain to connect with.
Overall, though, the deep commitment of the cast, coupled with the sheer variety of detailed environments and costumes (e.g. a man in a suit submerged in a tub of water, people chatting via a shard of glass, a judge wearing ludicrously large eyeglasses, a character glimpsed through holes punched in a wall), kept the pace clipping and earned my attention.
The scene that, for me, cemented A School for Fools for me as one of the best examples of socially-distanced digital theater to date was an unexpected brawl between a father and son. Like other successful parts of this production, this scene employed a POV shot to establish that the camera’s gaze mirrored that of the son’s as he spoke with his father, seated outdoors on a hammock. After an argument flared up between the two, the father gripped the camera and, immediately, it felt like he was fighting with his son in person. As the fight burst outdoors, the father threw his son off his balcony and, shockingly, the camera took flight.
In retrospect, this was clearly the work of a drone, but at the time, I was stunned, having no idea how this feat had been pulled off. I thought I knew what was possible in digital performances and, suddenly, this son was floating into the sky in front of my eyes.
One of the things I miss most about live theater is the experience, in exceptional performances, of having the boundaries of my imagination expand. It’s easy to forget in everyday life that, as Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and Earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Theater can remind us that the potential of this world is greater than we think. Now I know: in theatrical tussles, beware, or you might soar to the skies, just like this production of A School for Fools.