theater review

Does Interactive Theater Work on Zoom? Two Theaters Switch on the Video.

Photo: Courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

Sometimes you just want to watch some magic. You want someone to shuffle some cards around faster than your screen-dazed eyes can follow; you want a fast-talker to pressure you — lightly — to agree that something is amazing; you want to be startled by one card of a 52-card deck winding up in a rather unexpected position. You assumed the jack of hearts was over here, but no! He is over there! That is just about the level of shock I can sustain right now in my entertainment viewing.

By magical coincidence, there’s a show just like that streaming from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles: Helder Guimarães’s The Present. It’s solid showmanship and ephemeral pleasure; it’s warm storytelling and cool audience interaction. The best part is how long the show is — not the swift hour of its livestreaming presentation but the long and rather delicious anticipation that’s built into the preshow. A short while after you buy your ticket, a cardboard box arrives in the mail (which is already analog wizardry), and you’re not allowed to open it. Your Present present sits on your coffee table, tied up with string, making all kinds of silent promises, until the virtual audience gathers at the appointed Zoom time to open them together.

The present. Photo: Courtesy of the Geffen Playhouse

Guimarães shapes his card-trick act around a story of his own quarantine — a childhood illness, stuck at home, falling in love with a deck of cards. He’s also full of tales of his slightly mysterious grandfather, whom he understood, in many ways, too late. Magic shows are full of looking backward: I absorbed more history at a show by Ricky Jay (God rest him) in which he hurled playing cards at watermelons than I ever did from some dusty old book. You gotta get my attention, I thought at the time, while Jay flung magicians’ lore at us, fast as weaponized face cards. Guimarães is looking backwards too, though not at a legacy of flimflam artists and high-deceivers. He’s focused on memories of a decent man, living at the periphery of his grandson’s mind, even long after his death.

Guimarães himself has a sorrowful aspect, even when he’s convincing us through sleight of mind to do our own tricks, on ourselves. His eyes are a little sad, even when everything turns out just the way he wants, every time. Armed with cards he’s sent us (and various other items from that cardboard box), we turn out to be very good at creating ordered stacks out of seeming chaos and coming up with just the card that Guimarães was thinking of. “You are doing the magic!” he cries at us, as he suddenly fans out an obedient deck, somehow rearranged in order. He lets us know too early that his shuffles can’t be trusted, which takes away a little of the surprise — of course the jack of hearts is where he wants it to be, since the cards dance under his hands like marionettes. Still, the cards are inherently lovely objects, and seeing his very real choreography of them — disorder, order, disorder again — is more pleasurable than some mere illusion.

I recommend The Present for the way Guimarães reframes enforced isolation as a portal to mystery but also for the way the show helps keep your in-person attendee skills fresh. Remember that leaning-forward feeling of being present at a performance that needed your alert attention, that wonderful requirement theater puts on you to hold up your end of the show? Actors talk about a “good house” and a “supportive audience” because there’s an energy loop that has to connect through us. (If no one laughs at a comedy, it isn’t a comedy anymore.) In The Present, I felt that sizzle again of being part of Guimarães’s creation. I couldn’t simply be passive — our mics were on, and I needed to ooh and aah to keep the magical mood alive. The quarantine has made certain kinds of contact feel immensely precious: Zoom audiences with strangers are certainly fun and voyeuristic, and getting a package that I didn’t order myself from Amazon was a low-key spell for delight. But it was this third kind of contact, the audience-plus-performer spark, that makes The Present such a gift.

Because — what exactly makes something feel “live”? Not what is technically considered “live,” which just means we are watching something as it happens. Rather what actually registers with a watcher as the sensation of “liveness”? When we’re told we’re watching a live concert, we’re often settling for something that was simply captured live — the recorded event or YouTubed Zoom performance. These videos sometimes contain a little of their original conditions, but we aren’t watching a “now” anymore. We’re watching “then.”

As The Present does, several of the more sophisticated recent digital theater productions use interactivity to draw a bright line around their liveness, to remind us repeatedly that we are sharing a common “now.” In Creation Theatre’s The Time Machine, a Zoom performance from London (tickets still available through June), the production spends quite a bit of time showing the audience to itself — we frequently show up in gallery view, doing as we’re told, whether that’s clutching a household object or wearing a silly outfit. The main players are a series of actors, who travel through time (various Zoom backgrounds) in a bid to save us from a dystopian future. Jonathan Holloway’s script for The Time Machine is muddled (time travel is a danger, and we must prevent it, but only by doing time travel, to Studio 54?), though it’s been made very much in earnest, with a post-show panel by the show’s consultants at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities. But the type of the interaction is informed by British pantomime — I sometimes felt like a child being encouraged to clap for Tinkerbell rather than an adult being asked to think harder.

Each of these productions do, though, teach the industry about an emerging art form. I spoke several weeks ago with Michael Wheeler, the director of artistic research at Canada’s Folda Festival of Digital Art. (It is livestreaming through June 13.) “We’re really at the beginning of the rules of new creation,” Wheeler said. The pieces I’ve seen in this year’s Folda have been contemplative and often gorgeous — particularly Jose Rivera’s dreaming music stream, or This World Made Itself, Miwa Matreyek’s video work, in which she sends her own shadow across a mysterious fantasy landscape. Wheeler also recommended a piece that was at a past Folda called Good Things to Do, an immensely effective dream journey, which unfolds as a written event that the virtual audience reads silently on their own screens. In its live performances, the show’s creator, Christine Quintana, has the audience actually type their way into the script. It contains the most finely choreographed online “surprise” I’ve experienced, as well.  

Still, my favorite interactive events of the last many months have been Seven Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co.’s monthly gatherings, each one a “contemporary religious service” for a strange new religion, Fem-Animism. We “joinify” by donating on Patreon, and then we’re beckoned into a weird and soothing online ceremony, full of sacred washing, speaking puppet crows (CORVID-19 can be very rude), astrological readings, and radical re- and de-centerings. Playwright Sibyl Kempson and her collective dance in their backyards or their living rooms, fade glitchily into their forest Zoom backgrounds, and give tongue-in-cheek sermons on their foray into the Big Money of donation-based religion. And then at the end of each, the congregation “gathers.” Again, in gallery view, we see the dozens of faces of those who have chosen to spend their time in this odd and beautiful way, as a musician strikes a bell tone from a singing bowl. The chime works as it does in other religious services — it calls our attention both inward and outward. Looking calmly at all those faces as it sounds, you hear its healing message. Don’t worry about later, it says. It is now, it is now, it is now.

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