Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Review: "The Corona Variations" Mimics Real Life Too Closely

The set of short plays amplifies frustrations of the present moment

When art gets too close to real life, it becomes a bit unsettling. This was my main insight after my encounter with The Corona Variations, a phone experience produced by the Toronto-based Convergence Theatre. The piece consists of six short (about 10 minutes each) “phone plays,” delivered to one audience member, or one household, over the course of one evening, one every half an hour. In some of them, you eavesdrop on other people’s phone conversations. In others, you participate by reading from a script (which is sent in advance). 

Among the assorted vignettes: the ways high school students navigate social life while self-isolating; a blind phone date; a secret affair; a broken marriage; and a sisterly squabble. The Corona Variations tries its best to counterbalance the emotionally loaded scenes with comedic moments, but a thick cloud of melancholy hangs heavily over even the most cheerful jokes. Some of the characters are loosely connected between the plays, but the real connection between all of them is the mutual experience of being stuck in one’s home at the moment and in the tiring uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The interactive parts of The Corona Variations are designed with a reserved audience member in mind, meaning that the improvisation is minimal; for the most part, I just listened or read my dialogue as written from the provided script. What would normally be perceived as a relief (I rarely enjoy the spotlight) felt like a cruel limitation to me and sent me further down a dismal spiral. Some of the other remote experiences that I have done lately have shown how magical and intimate “one-on-one”s over the phone can be. Reading the words that didn’t resonate with me while being not in character felt more like lying.       

My first conversation is with Jean, a 72-year-old woman who lives alone. By the time I picked up the phone, she had already spent about three hours on hold for a “Tele-Therapy” hotline and is now relying on me, a “specialist” who is supposedly equipped to provide an express fix-up. I have the script for the conversation in hand, and, unwilling to “break” the experience, I proceed with reading the damn lines, trying to convey as much compassion with my voice as I can. Intellectually, I know I’m talking to an actress on the other end. But somehow it doesn’t make the tough conversation easier. 

And, in the end, I don’t think my effort makes any difference and I was left confused about what this short play is supposed to evoke. How Jean and (other single elderly people like her) are able to find a moment of bliss in baking and watching funny videos? Pity for the mental health practitioners who are experiencing an immense work overload and have to turn to pre-written scripts in order to accommodate as many people as possible during shortened sessions? It is easier to shake off the distress during the plays that keep the fourth wall up, but less so with the ones where I get to play a part. And the situations in which I find myself during The Corona Variations are painfully close to real life. And it makes me angry that—even in the world of fiction—I feel that I am unable to make a difference. 

I also realize that the 20-minute intermissions between phone calls contributes greatly to my dissatisfaction with this experience. Left with no guidance on how to spend the in-between time, and feeling the familiar pressure of being “productive” while waiting, I busy myself with daily tasks. I read the NY Times’ updates on the lockdown. I write to my sister-in-law with condolences for a friend she lost to COVID-19. I get a text from a friend about her unsatisfactory online date. I go to the kitchen to make some tea and hear my mother-in-law on the phone with her lover, who was about to sneak out of his marital house. I feel like my life could be this show. Anybody’s life can, these days. 

One’s inner state can affect the perception of artwork greatly. It is true especially now when we can’t escape our life circumstances, housing situations, and shifting moods. In real life, I am unable to contact my elderly friend who lives alone; this fact couldn’t not affect my interaction with Jean. And if normally I am able to process parallels like this internally and not drag my entire self into my reviews, I found it especially challenging with The Corona Variations. Nothing “horrible” happens in these plays, but their close proximity to the reality around me, the structure that prompts the “productive” waiting and limitations in my agency (save for one scene) makes the overall experience disconcerting.    

I would be happy to hear that somebody else’s experience with The Corona Variations is uplifting and reassuring. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the experience, true. But it is not enough to rescue me from the vast darkness that our world feels like by my last phone call. It’s great that Convergence Theatre decided to take a stab at a timely topic and engaged with their audiences despite the social distancing limitations. However, the company missed the mark in both the format and the tone. They say misery loves company, but, evidently, it’s not enough to commiserate together. My hope is that we can be more mindful of what kind of “company” we provide others—both in making art and in our everyday interactions.   

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on May 26)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: ‘The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries’ Uncovers a Sense of Wonder

A serial phone adventure made about, and for, a single person: you

A while ago on a subway, I saw an ad for personalized children’s books that insert a child’s name into the narrative to make a kid the main character of the story he or she reads. How in tune with the times where experience design becomes increasingly personalized, I thought. But also, how cool that must feel to be the main character of a fairy tale that somebody wrote for and about you! I kind of felt like a kid reading one of those books during the week that The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries was unfolding: excited, surprised, overjoyed. 

Sebastien “Inspector” Heins. Photo by Dasha Peregoudova

Produced by Outside the March, Toronto-based immersive theatre company, this highly personalized and improvised adventure is a series of daily phone calls, each about 10 minutes long. A personal mundane mystery that you submit at the beginning of the experience is investigated by the Ministry and your job is to provide honest information when called upon. But what mundane mystery to choose? 

Why is my unemployment status pending? Will I lose all of my summer gigs? When will I be able to see my family? Those are just some of the mysteries on the tip of my tongue, but looking through the FAQ (which is hilarious to read by itself), I got the impression that The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries wouldn’t be interested in any of these. Socks missing their partner wouldn’t work either, the company explicitly said that the Ministry is “socked out” on their FAQ. What can it be then? My gaze turned to two pots of soil on my window sill with sprouts in them. You see, I planted hot pepper seeds recently but only in one of them. The other one was empty but now has a mystery plant growing in it. Bingo! And so the "The Case of the Adjacent Hot Peppers" was opened.              

On Monday, I received a phone call from Inspector Curry (Shannon Currie) assigned to my case, a bubbly and excitable woman, in whose company I felt at ease right away. She casually asked me about my papers, my household, and my lifestyle while collecting the information regarding my case and hence the material for my personalized adventure. From that initial conversation and a follow-up interview, characters sprung up that were so amusing and hilarious that it was hard to control my laughter during the daily calls. I eagerly waited for my call at 6:30pm every day with great anticipation, having no idea who would be on the line and what new twist the case of the adjacent peppers might take!

On Tuesday, Tomas Green (Colin Doyle) called me in great secrecy to share that something similar happened to him; a cucumber vine was growing in his English ivy plant. He struck me as an honest, somewhat shy, and curious person, so I had no problem sharing my deepest thoughts about flora with him. After a 10-minute hearty conversation, we decided that some sort of hopping seed conspiracy is going on and we just happened to be hosts for some of the rebellious plants. The next day a woman (Sheri Godda) called from a company that manufactures and delivers fertilizer. With the dexterity of a skilled salesperson, she got my story and my stance on the hopping seed theory, only to eventually reveal herself as Rose Pip, a VP of marketing and Brand Awareness of the Federation of Seeds and Seed Planters and to scold me for spreading dirty rumors! Our entire conversation was a seesaw of hostility, flattery, threats, and genuine respect, all very stimulating, I must note. 

Over the next three days, I chatted more with Inspector Curry as the case turned suspenseful and mysterious. I also encountered the most bizarre and grotesque character, Dr. Vladislav Luget (Jonathan Shaboo), the head chemist from the Little Squirrel Chocolate labs (earlier that week, in the conversation with Inspector Curry I reported Little Squirrel to be the last chocolate I ate). In his heavy Russian accent, he conveyed to me that, as part of an aggressive marketing campaign, a small dose of an addictive hallucinogen had been added to the chocolate, which made people see visions of tiny plants and sometimes tiny squirrels. As an apology for the inconvenience, the company was offering a three-month supply of Little Squirrel chocolates. With hallucinogens in them, of course. At this point, I was practically rolling on the floor laughing.                 

The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries is one of a few experiences where spoilers are nearly impossible since it is tailored to the circumstances of each participant, so don’t worry that the detailed account of my case will ruin your own journey. However, I will hold on to the finale, but will just mention that the ending was as hilarious and satisfying as the rest of the mystery. Did it really explain how a single sprout got into a pot where nothing was planted? Not quite. But it hardly matters anymore. More importantly, I was able to get a break from my “real life” worries and to live in a fantasy where anything is possible.           

Every minute of The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries was engaging and every call was a surprise. All the actors were very responsive to my ideas and improvised wonderfully, no matter how tricky my questions were. Using accents as comical props, the cast created a world where I couldn’t be sure what was true and what was just a game of imagination. I felt like the star of my own fairytale detective story. It was magical to see how the tiniest, most mundane details of my life were re-shuffled and made into an exciting narrative of mystery, romance, and hallucinogenic Russian candy.     

(This review was published on noproscenium.com)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: ‘The Girl On The Phone’ Gives Players The Chance to Be a Hero

An over-the-phone adventure by Sinking Ship Creations 

I often feel powerless during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides the passive and protective measures I take, there is not much else I can do. It feels like the entire world is standing still, anxiously waiting for what each new day will bring. Luckily, we have modern technology and ancient techniques of storytelling as well as restless creative minds to combine the two. Today, especially, I am thrilled to see immersive theatre finding new ways to connect to audiences: to entertain, to challenge, to comfort, and to empower. One of those on the front lines of digital theatre in times of “Corona” is Sinking Ship Creations, who are currently producing three new over-the-phone adventures.            

The Girl On The Phone, created by Sinking Ship co-producer and LARP writer, Betsy Isaacson (who you may know from Escape from Marseilles) is not heavy on roleplaying; in this one-on-one remote experience, I am basically myself. At the pre-arranged start time, I receive a badly mistyped text mistyped (there is clearly no autocorrect on this phone) asking me for help. Irene, the girl on the other end, and I don’t know each other. But she’s happened to find a phone in the place of her entrapment and it has my number on it. She is afraid to contact the authorities because she was kidnapped by the corrupted police of Caracas, or some people dressed as the police. But I found out all of this information later, over the course of our 66-minute encounter. First, we have to get her out of her handcuffs. Or should I first make sure she is who she says she is? 

My head is spinning as Irene is trying to type messages to me with her hands handcuffed. Every pause is filled with tension as, from what I understand, she could be caught at any minute of our dangerous journey. There are no blinking dots to indicate that somebody is typing on the other end and no sign of my last message being received. Every line of interaction can potentially become the last time I hear from Irene, so I have to be quick on my feet. I feel as if I have a real thriller on my fingertips. The timing of the texts is very well-paced, as the pregnant pauses let my imagination run wild. Did she make it? Did my plan work? I am on the edge of my seat, nervously staring at my phone.      

When Irene finally has a chance to call me, I hear the voice of a sweet young girl, scared out of her mind. I don’t blame her. Jennifer Suter, who portrays Irene, is incredibly convincing. The sound design, created by the actress herself, is spot on. From the kind of long-distance-call effect provided by old cell phones to the sounds of the surroundings, the picture of what is going on on the other end is quite vivid. Background noises make picturing locations easy and help to envelop me in the story, it definitely added a realistic flair to the production. 

I will refrain from revealing any more of our adventure to avoid spoiling your experience with The Girl on the Phone. It is possible that your story will take a different course depending on your actions. Like with any interactive experience, a lot depends on your involvement. The Girl On The Phone is engaging and thrilling. It’s easy to fall into the storyworld thanks to Suter’s skillful and barely noticeable “back leading,” a skill of pulling the participant deep into the action which appears on the surface as participant’s initiative but is actually scripted story. 

For me, The Girl On The Phone was an equally nerve-racking and heartfelt journey. Without fully putting on the mask of a fictional character, I still had to perform multiple roles: that of a crisis specialist, negotiator, interpreter, navigator, and, lastly, friend. In a way, it felt like Irene and I  became friends over the course of the hour we spent communicating. Overcoming a struggle together tends to bring people closer together, and shows like The Girl On The Phone are exactly what the world needs right now.                                      

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on April 15th)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Review: “Play In Your Bathtub” and “Life on Earth”: the immersive and digital theatre in the time of social distancing.

“Play In Your Bathtub” and “Life on Earth”: the immersive and digital theatre in the time of social distancing. 

Like many of us during the COVID-19 quarantine, I am nostalgic for the times when we could go to the theater and socialize freely. But at the same time I am thrilled by the response of the artistic community: even under the challenging conditions of physical isolation theatre is being created and it finds its audience across many digital platforms. Take This is Not a Theatre Company, for instance. It has produced not one, but two shows meant to be enjoyed remotely: Play In Your Bathtub: An Immersive Audio Spa For Physical Distancing and Life on Earth. The New-York based company usually produces site-specific pieces and has taken their audiences to a cafe, Staten Island Ferry and a pool.    

This is Not a Theatre Company's production of "Play in Your Bathtub" is meant to be enjoyed from your bath in the comfort of your own home.
I vividly remember the first production of the company that I attended in 2017, Pool Play 2.0. It featured a collection of scenes, monologues, and dance numbers all centered around the topic of various bodies of water. The cast of seven performed in the middle of a large swimming pool, while the audience members sat on the edge, dangling their feet ankle-deep in the water. I am reminded of this moment of joyful public gathering as I am filling up the bathtub at home three years later in anticipation of the company’s new piece, Play In Your Bathtub. This show, unlike the Pool Play, is meant to be enjoyed in solitude, in a private bathtub (a bucket or any container for a footbath will also do). With public spaces being closed for the time being, producer and writer, Erin Mee, turns one’s bathroom into the location for her new site-specific project.    

Following the instructions from the email sent prior to the experience I gather the “props”: a cup of tea (can be wine or any beverage), a washcloth soaked in warm water and a candle. The list also calls for aromatherapy source, which might be a scented candle, bath oil or herbal brew which you prepare in advance. For that purpose, I picked up a few twigs of a pine tree which turned out to be the single greatest idea of the week. The pines provide a pleasant smell and fun haptic experience. Necessity is the mother of invention but so is boredom, if anything the quarantine taught me that much. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything on the list, this won’t affect engaging with the piece. The key factor is comfort, so whichever way you choose to immerse yourself in the water, it should feel pleasant and comfortable so you can fully relax your body.      

Play In Your Bathtub is an audio track that can be played from any device at any time. The date and a start time that you choose upon getting a pay-what-you-can ticket online is more of a suggestion, and I wish it was emphasized by the company. So don’t be discouraged if the offered times don’t work for you or if you are running late. Although the start time turned out to be nominal (hypothetical) I did like the idea of keeping an appointment with myself and entertained the fact that probably several people are doing exactly the same thing at that moment; getting into the tub and immersing themselves with the sounds of Play In Your Bathtub.   

The 25-minute experience features a collection of poetic monologues and interactive prompts. “Drink from the well of yourself to begin again” - whispers a female voice, followed by a gentle rustling of ice-cubes in a glass, something straight from an ASMR seance. Then it cuts to a woman offering me to give myself a head massage. In a similar manner, contemplative fragments that are meant to engage the participant intellectually and emotionally are mixed with the prompts to interact with the scene physically. I am invited to trace the patterns of the water with an index finger or the tiles with one’s thumbs. My favorite part was harmonizing along with the narrator, which gave me a strange sense of joy and liberation. I am not a singer and don’t even sing in the shower, so hearing my own voice reverberating against the tiled surfaces was an entirely new experience for me. 

Like other productions by This is Not a Theatre Company, Play In Your Bathtub is a busy eclectic collage, switching between the genres and moods in a heartbeat. Like a curious, restless child, Erin Mee invents one game after another and plunges in full-heartedly, only to forget about it altogether in a few minutes and jump on the next adventure. If I wasn’t familiar with the company’s work, I might have felt disoriented, overloaded and confused. Treating the experience as a game and having a little fun enhances it. After all the world “Play” in it stands for both dramatic work and activity for enjoyment and recreation.    

I’ve learned that the best way to approach This is Not a Theatre Company’s productions is to treat them as a chocolate sampler: you might not love every single piece but you will have a unique opportunity to try a bunch of different flavors and maybe discover something that will stick with you. For me, it is harmonizing in my full voice in the bathroom and playing with pine twigs. Savoring each moment and experimenting with daily rituals like bathing might open new horizons of perception and re-introduce yourself to you. Play In Your Bathtub turns the limitations of quarantine into a precious gift. It reminds us that self-care, curiosity, and playfulness are more important now than ever before and that we are only limited by our imagination. 

Life on Earth took place entirely over Discord. A screenshot of the live chat.
Another component of keeping sane during these trying times is to support each other. Hence the second show in the repertoire of This is Not a Theatre Company, Life on Earth, is dedicated to social life in the times of physical distancing. This adaptation of Charles’ Mee play, Heaven on Earth started at 8 pm on April 3rd and ended around 4:30 pm on April 5th. Over a hundred participants were tuning in from all over the world, including Argentina, India, Nepal, Turkey, and China.  

There is a Bot moderator, who starts and wraps up the sessions, occasionally throws in prompts and has the power to ban those who are not respectful of others. Early in the experience, Bot posts photos of ruins of ancient civilizations: Greek temple, Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and others. The set is concluded with a photo of people wearing surgical masks cramped in what appears to be a shelter. Bot quotes from Heaven on Earth:      

the world has come to an end--
and yet:
life goes on;

This sets up the tone for the dialogue on the public forum, dedicated to “Earth Matters”. Videos of different artists performing at home are organized in accordance with the original script and become a part of the live conversation. An inspirational video from Napoli of people singing in unison from their balconies is followed by sharing of exciting things that everybody saw lately, a picture of durian fruit and more vocal and dance performances recorded by the participants in their quarantine corners. At this point the moderation is minimal and there is a lot of confusion in the audience that came to see “the performance”. “Is anything not a performance ;)” - comments one of the participants.

The surreal, absurdist text of Charles Mee lends itself perfectly into the format of a chat-room. Life on Earth, the play that inspired our collective Discord journey proved to be so flexible enough to accommodate the participation of people who have no clue in what’s going on. A narrative within a narrative, Heaven on Earth is itself like a beautiful ruin, on which the vines of our personal experiences climb freely. At some point, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between a character in the play and a participant. Is an emoji of a woman in a red dress an homage to Heaven on Earth? Some fragments are direct quotes but they blend in so seamlessly in this multi-cultural dialogue that it’s impossible to tell where the original text ends and the improvisation begins. 

More dances, songs, and short videos of everyday activities like yoga or doing chores are added to the chat. Participants share encouraging quotes and comment on each other’s contributions. The rule of thumb that everybody adopted unanimously and without the enforcement from the outside is that you are not supposed to post while everybody is watching a new video offering. As somebody noted: “Less speaking and more listening might help us all understand the dramaturgical structure of the piece”, a good rule for life in general, I might add. Less speaking and more listening might help us understand each other better.       

Life on Earth has concluded but is available in its entirety on Discord, complete with a recipe for carrot cake, a tutorial on how to build a sheet fort and Charles’ Mee original text. To our disappointment or amusement, life today does resemble an absurdist play with a fatal twist. Life on Earth comes remarkably close to depicting reality, messy but, in the end, so beautiful. 

(This review was published on TheTheatreTimes.com on April 10th) 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Review: DopoLavoro Teatrale’s ‘Invisible City’ Connects Its Global Citizens

Remote performances provide a quiet space for urban dreamers

My mother’s friend used to have a collection of postcards called “Cities at Night.” Each was entirely black, with a small piece of yellow or white text in the corner or on the bottom saying “X at night,” X being a name of any city on Earth. I loved leafing through pages and pages of her album with these postcards, simultaneously disturbed by the total blackout and moved by the joke. When I think of our cities now, during the pandemic, they seem much like those postcards to me: quiet and waiting, with myriads of stories behind the vastness of black paint.            

I feel like I myself am about to step into one of those postcards in Invisible City, Episode 1.  This interactive, episodic show takes place via Google Hangouts. It is a part of Theatre On-Call, a festival of performances occurring over the phone and other platforms, created by the Toronto-based DopoLavoro Teatrale. 

Following the pre-show instructions, I dim the lights and settle into the nest of my bed ten minutes before the start time. I put on my headphones and listen to a four-and-a-half minute pre-show audio track titled “Going to the Invisible City.” A dreamy electronic tune is joined by a sound of metal clanging, the rhythm of which reminds me of a train slowly rolling out of a railway station at first. Increasingly, the music becomes more abstract and futuristic, and I am not on a train any more, but in a spaceship. And then the call comes through.

There are five of us participating tonight. Our video cameras are turned off, so we are represented just by our Google Hangouts profile photos, names, and voices. Natalia is from Vancouver, a theatre and film post-doc researcher; Margit is from Minneapolis, and is a psychology professor; Jeremy is from St. Paul, and is a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments), and, lastly, we have Kolpack, the moderator who is coming somewhere from Canada. With gatherings, both public and private, becoming increasingly more global these days, I feel like only two geographical aspects are important now: someone’s  time zone and their city’s COVID-19 case count and imposed social distancing restrictions. But we hardly talk about any of that during the experience. Instead, prompted by Kolpack’s questions, we talk about the people we love, the things that make us happy, and our relationship with art.         

The format is less of a dialogue and more of an interview as Kolpack asks each of us the same questions, changing the order of the responders. And as the experience progresses, it reminds me of: a classroom with a teacher calling upon us; a radio talk show where a host interviews four random people; a group therapy session; and, lastly, an overnight train car with five strangers gradually warming up to each other. In real life, we could be riding a subway car together or passing each other on the street but we would never talk. With the safety of an anonymous digital connection, we are suddenly drawn to each other and willing to share our own deep thoughts. All of us have different lives, yet I recognize a lot of similarities in the answers. I nod vigorously to some of the revelations. My gesture is unseen but, it feels like, understood by ther others. Some of the experiences the participants share are unfamiliar to me and I try hard to imagine what it means to love your child more than you love your spouse, or what it’s like “having it all” but still experiencing a midlife crisis.                  

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Invisible City, Episode 1 left such a deep impression on me. At first, the format felt somewhat awkward, if not pointless. In the beginning, one of the participants couldn’t turn their mic on, so the technical difficulties felt like an interruption of the flow. But before I knew it, I was taken by the conversation completely, relishing in the stories of my newly-acquired acquaintances. Often closeness and a sense of profound human connection are born out of anonymity, and DLT has created a wonderful space to evoke those feelings. Being unseen and not seeing my partners in conversation, as well as not knowing them outside of the experience, brings forth trust to open up, as a sort of confession booth. Sometimes I find myself surprised by the words coming out of my own mouth and I can see how this aspect of Invisible City by itself can be therapeutic.              

The thoughtful framing plays a crucial part. Pre-show emails provide clear, step-by-step instructions and I found a sudden comfort in following them, anchoring myself amidst the daily chaos. Following the instructions was like re-creating a magical ritual even though they consisted of fairly routine actions: brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, dim the lights, get comfortable, and listen to an audio track. I was probably eight years old last time somebody was giving me instructions to prepare for bedtime. Receiving them now felt like an act of care, and a promise of a wonderful adventure in the form of a bedtime story. Invisible City: Episode 1 lived up to its promise and I got to travel, not to some fairytale country, but to the streets of Vancouver drowning in spring bloom, and to a balcony overlooking the panorama of Minneapolis, and to St. Paul, lit up by bright street lights. Life goes on, and even in the darkest night, there is the light of human kindness and our own imaginations.   

The next evening, for Invisible City, Episode 2, I travel to New York City. I get a Zoom call from Rory, which starts with him reading an excerpt from City of Glass by Paul Auster. I imagine wandering through the streets of New York City with Quinn, the protagonist of this story, traveling the “labyrinths of endless steps,” getting lost in my thoughts. Prior to the quarantine, I spent the majority of my working and leisure time in New York City. I haven’t stepped foot in it for nearly a month. I share this sudden realization with Rory. “Do you think the city will be the same when you come back?” Rory asks me. I don’t know. I won’t be the same, for sure. Honestly, I don’t know if I want to live in a big city ever again. I can relate to Rory’s observation that cities seem the best place to be when everything is great and the worst places to be trapped in when everything isn’t great. 

This  hour-long experience consists mostly of readings from City of Glass and Invisible Cities (by Italo Calvino, free-style conversations prompted by Rory’s questions, sharing our urban memories and dreams, and musical pieces that he plays for me. Together we listen to the somber and mysterious “Awakening of a City” by Luigi Russolo, one of the first noise artists of the early-twentieth-century. Amidst the engines roaring and flying away to the stratosphere, I hear Rory typing and sniffing a couple of times. Turns out, the joy of sharing art with somebody is not entirely lost even if we are physically not next to each other.         
With just the two of us on the line, the conversation seems more informal than in Episode 1. I suspect both episodes are designed for a few audience members at a time and it just happened to be a one-on-one in my case. If not for an omnipresent rectangle labeled “DLT Experience” (the third silent wheel in our soulful conversation) and the red dot indicating “Recording,” I could easily forget that I am in a theatrical experience. Being listened to while being recorded also makes me somewhat uneasy. Rory, on the other hand, is a wonderful narrator and a conversation partner. I regret, a bit, being robbed of the illusion that we are entirely alone. 

This episode of Invisible Cities made me reminisce about various immersive one-on-one experiences that I have gone through, both physical and remote. In reviewing past physical one-on-ones, I was never truly alone with the performer, with their (and sometimes my) characters remaining as a wedge between us, not to mention the presence of security cameras as well as any given production’s official rules of engagement and social protocols. Paradoxically, the encounters over the phone seem the most intimate to me, maybe because my dating life occurred in the pre-video-calls era or because of the sense of ease and mystery that voice conversation provides. This format, although bearing its own restrictions, seems a little more flexible, a little more playful. Also, it was nice to close my eyes after a long day staring at screens and drown in the voice reading about the lures of urban spaces.                              
Some of the cities are invisible because they are imaginary, like Isidora, Anastasia or Irene from Calvino’s whimsical novel. But as Rory reads about them, I feel the heat of a noon sun on my skin as I walk through the streets. I hear the splashing water of secluded basins where women invite the passersby to disrobe and chase them into the water. New York is invisible to Queen because he is so lost in his thoughts, he no longer cares where he is, but the city is there, described beautifully on the pages of Auster’s detective story. For Rory, New York City is invisible because he hasn’t been there yet, saving the visit for some special occasion, but it is now on his bucket list for a time after everything is “back to normal.” From where I live, I can see New York City across the Hudson River. I see the city on the news and on social media and in conversations with my friends, but I lack real connection. I ought to keep the social distancing, for now, but I hope to freely walk the New York City streets soon. 

As a final act of Invisible City, Episode 2, Rory and I listen to “4:33” by John Cage. It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece, which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds. In the shared silence between us, I hear a few cars driving by, faint music coming from the apartment upstairs, and a dog barking. Even when the lights go down and our cities seem unusually quiet, life goes on. So let’s fill the quiet space between us with meaningful sounds and conversations. It’s so easy to get lost in the roaring sea of news, social media, and television binge-watching. Instead, let’s take time to connect to ourselves, the ones we love, and—maybe—to the ones we don’t know yet. 

The first step is easy: just listen.    

(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on April 9th)