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)