theater review

Uses for a Dull Knife: Productive Boredom in Three Zoomertainments

State vs. Natasha Banina Photo: Arlekin Players

I don’t know if other people felt that late June was some kind of turning point, mentally, but I’ve definitely noticed a chemical shift—a crucial liquid in my brain is evaporating. Sustained attention has been increasingly difficult to come by, though obsessive absorption is also more available, but only once a book or broadcast (or grudge) grips me. I’m faster on the draw with every response, particularly annoyance and despair. I’ve gotten a little volatile; I have even flounced away from the computer like a teenager several times in the past week, when a show I was watching went south. So, although this sounds like a backhanded slam, I was actually rather grateful, during three recent online productions, to get a bit … bored.

In the before times, I was able to say and mean that boredom and its relatives (distraction, impatience, a sense of time slowing) were all valuable colors on a dramatist’s palette. Jackie Sibblies Drury used banality to play a stealthy trick in the first scene of Fairview: When the play seemed to be falling into predictability, she was actually priming an ontological trap. Avant-gardists like Richard Foreman used serrated boredom to saw away at a watcher’s superego so images could get into the id beneath. Now, though, with all art funneled through the computer screen, it’s been harder to actually experience boredom, precious as it is. To grow bored during a show and then to stick with it — not to navigate away or open another tab — is the first hesitant step on the path to pre-pandemic mental discipline.

The Cherry Orchard Festival’s presentation State vs. Natasha Banina is, of all three of the shows I’m covering here, the slowest to slow down. In fact, for most of its hour, the Arlekin Players Theater’s translation/adaptation of Yaroslava Pulinovich’s modern Russian play Natasha’s Dream is a transfixing, virtuosic piece of performance by Darya Denisova, a headlong character portrait of a girl driven to violence. Structured as a confession, with teenage Natasha presenting her “case” live to the watching Zoom audience, the production uses digital techniques to keep the screen interesting: When Natasha tells us she has jumped out of her orphanage window on a dare, she’s in black and white; when she tells us about meeting a concerned journalist who shows a sliver of humane interest in her, the inventive director Igor Golyak flushes the screen with color. Animated astronauts and hearts and cigarette smoke float through Natasha’s paper-white cell; pop-up questionnaires act as our jury’s voir dire; and the production often flashes the audience’s faces up on screen, as Denisova pleads with us by name.

Natasha tells us about the emotional starvation of life in a Russian orphanage, the sort of treatment that would make any child savage. She’s a raw nerve, and any kindness, any touch at all, makes her scream. Denisova, her face right up against the camera, is particularly good at communicating Natasha’s beaten-puppy eagerness to crawl back to any foot willing to kick her. In the last ten minutes, though, I grew a little tired of the steam-kettle breathing and eye-rolling panic. The monologue’s bleakness just wouldn’t stop, and as Natasha grew more desperate for our approval — we hold her fate in our polls — I found the size of the performance started to wear on me. Even this growing audience callousness, though, is part of the show’s design. How long does it take before we’re tired of hearing about other people’s pain? How long before our tiny little measure of compassion is used up? No need to wonder anymore. Arlekin Players Theatre put a stopwatch on it. It took around 60 minutes.

I’m afraid that I never did work out a use for the boredom I experienced in the latest of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays, which have finally left their usual orchard at the Public Theater and are now sprouting in the wild on YouTube. From 2010 to 2014, Nelson’s naturalistic, muted dramas about the Rhinebeck siblings and their sorrows appeared at the Public; in April, the Public virtually presented Nelson’s first Zoom play What Do We Need To Talk About? for that same stellar company (Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, Stephen Kunken). In that April effort, there was genuine life and comfort in seeing familiar faces and in hearing people separated by the pandemic using poetry and gossip and commiseration to survive. The original Apple stage series was even better. Yet in this first self-produced effort, And So We Come Forth, Nelson has wandered into self-indulgence.

The Apples have reached peak mope this time, glummer and more despondent than when Barbara (Plunkett) was trembling from illness or when Uncle Benjamin was dying or when Marian (Robins) was mourning her son. The Apple malaise this time around isn’t because they fear political inefficacy or COVID or death. Instead, the playwright’s own plaintiveness about irrelevancy has soured the play. Sure there’s a pandemic, sure the country’s in the chipper — but young people can say such mean things. (Did someone under 40 at the Public say they didn’t need another Apple Family play?) Many of the characters transmit this am-I-old-news lament: Sanders’s Richard chokes back tears as he tells a story about sons throwing a poet’s work in the trash; Barbara trembles as she tells her family that some students (her favorites!) told her they don’t need to hear from her “right now.” Nelson’s never afraid to write himself into his plays, so when Barbara tells us an offscreen playwright friend has emailed her to tell her that he wakes up every day “surrounded by Furies” and that translating those Furies into dialogue calms him — we get it. But I watched that whole 60-minute play hoping for Furies. All I heard were Sulks.

The occasional boredom in the third play, Zero Cost House, is actually an old acquaintance. I remember it from 2013, when this collaboration between the Philadelphia company Pig Iron and Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada came to the Public (I swear, I do go to other theaters) for the Under the Radar Festival. Converting the play for Zoom has heightened and tightened some elements of the play, but the third act still seems colorless by comparison, a pivot away from what makes the first two so clever and affecting. But this time, I was ready.

I was also willing, even eager, to return. That’s because in the years since 2013, I’ve thought often about Zero Cost House. It’s a deeply moral play, which is not the same as being a political play, and so its work on me was slow. In fact, it was a bit more gradual than my reviewing process did, so it’s one of the shows I think about having “gotten wrong,” not because I wrote dishonestly about it, but because I wrote about it before it had really finished with me. I think about that show weekly. It haunts me, which, I think, is worth a little tedium.

In Zero Cost House, Okada writes his autobiography. (The script is translated by Aya Ogawa.) The show’s Okada character is played by various Pig Iron actors, including Dito van Reigersberg, and appears also as his much younger self, just out of college, played by Shavon Norris. Both the “current” and younger Okada want to discuss Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: the older writer (accomplished, acclaimed, financially comfortable, the “voice of a generation”) because he wants to write a play for a Philadelphia theater company, and he thinks, in a desultory way, Americans would all be interested in Thoreau; the younger and obscure Okada because Walden is the focus and obsession of his life.

“I have travelled,” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “a good deal in Concord, and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” And that laborious penance isn’t something the young Okada is willing to do. He works a job to survive, lives meagerly, and devotes the rest of his life to his writing. This, the young man says, is joyful fulfillment. The younger Okada can’t believe the older one has stopped reading the book daily; Young Okada is pitying, even scornful, about the sort of person who would “mature” to find Thoreau naïve or pretentious. These sequences are very gently performed, but they’re harrowing. Imagine being confronted with your 20-something self. Look her in the eyes; tell her which ideals you’ve “grown out of.”

Interlaced with these exchanges are conversations between a rabbit couple (Saori Tsukada with puppets) who have a pompous neighbor named Henry. This neighbor is, of course, actually Thoreau—the couple are based on figures in Walden, who Thoreau tries to talk into vegetarianism so they won’t work so much. The rabbits find him condescending, but when we see them later, they have evolved into a weirdly fluffy Japanese family, evacuating to Western Japan, terrified by fallout from the 2012 Fukushima disaster. The third act turns into a fantasia about setting up an alternate government in Western Japan, where people would abandon consumerist society and live closer to their true needs. Even Thoreau himself (Alex Torra) pops into the present day to chat with Okada—identity and time and species have all been shaken loose by the Tōhoko tsunami.

Just as it was in 2013, Zero Cost House revels in hesitation. All Okada’s conversations hem and haw, full of the backing and filling of characters who don’t know they’re supposed to be operating on theater-time. Where is the compression? Where is the sense of time-not-wasted? Okada’s writing simply doesn’t work that way. He wants to take his time in telling us about a country where there’s a poison the government wants to ignore, about a society of consumption that eventually consumes itself. Maybe if we’d listened in 2013? Well, Pig Iron is willing to tell us again. I won’t claim that I wasn’t impatient with the Okada pace all over again, despite Dan Rothenberg’s elegantly directed Zoom performance, packed with elegant tricks of perspective and sly editing. But still, I wouldn’t have made the mistake of missing it. My younger self would have never forgiven me.

State vs. Natasha Banina runs through July 12.

And So We Come Forth runs through August 31.

Zero Cost House runs through July 3.

Uses for a Dull Knife: Productive Boredom in Zoomertainment