Participatory drama by Phoenix Tears Productions brings excitement to Zoom
As much as I am impressed with the technical and artistic advances of virtual theatre in the pandemic age, I’m tired of staring into my computer screen. Nothing beats a live show. I frankly thought I was done with Zoom theatre; that is, until I attended Posthumous, a remote interactive experience by Orlando-based Phoenix Tears Productions. It turns out that live-streamed performances can feel captivating, dramatic events can be gripping, and even the sickeningly familiar mechanics of Zoom can feel fresh.
Some believe that the souls of the deceased go to heaven, but, in the world of Posthumous, people have figured out how to upload the consciousnesses of the recently deceased to the cloud. By connecting to the memories of the dead, the leaders of this new industry are able to customize “post-physical existence” and make the experience of the afterlife as pleasant as possible. But what makes the eponymously titled Posthumous corporation stand out from the competition is their environmental ethics. The company’s web site reads: “Posthumous tested and is in the process of patenting ‘Posthumous Power’ an alternative energy that can run the servers of hundreds of afterlives without the depletion of fossil fuels.” The relatives of their deceased clients can find comfort in knowing that their loved ones can spend eternity according to their preferences, all while using clean energy, energy so abundant it can power entire cities. What could possibly go wrong?
(Very light spoilers follow.)
“Melinda Winter, one season, no ‘s,’” says our supervisor, wearing a bright fuchsia dress with matching lipstick, and laughing loudly at her own joke. I suspect she uses it every time she introduces herself. Along with five other new hires in the Recruitment department, I am sitting at an orientation session (all of the participants in the show have been split up into different corporate departments such as Investors or Recovery). I am instantly annoyed by this overly enthusiastic woman in Recruitment. But I have to pretend I am paying attention to her every word. After all, I need to get to the bottom of what this company is all about. The experience has barely started, but I am a mole: I’m on a mission by an outside agency to investigate this suspicious company. (But I won’t reveal any other details about my espionage to avoid additional spoilers.)
As the orientation continues, we are told of the responsibilities of the Recruitment department, one of which is to choose people who will get our services pro bono. Ms. Winter introduces the three pro bono candidates with the help of a slide show. We start our discussion as Khadijah Banks, the leader of the company, joins us. In the hopes of finding some corporate secrets, Ms. Banks (Stephanie Rae) tries to persuade us to “plugin” an employee of another, competing afterlife company. Meanwhile, our group is still leaning towards selecting a child as the recipient of free afterlife. As our discussion unfolds, people from our small department conspicuously come and go, being pulled into different breakout rooms on Zoom.
An entire layer of plot gradually emerges alongside the daily tasks that our team has to perform. Along with the Recruiters track, which I am on, there is a Recovery crew (which deals with the postmortal clients), and an Investors department. Sometimes we cross paths with people from other departments, as well as other employees of Posthumous, and other characters like clients’ family members. On top of occasionally finding myself in a room with somebody else, I am also getting all sorts of weird messages through chat. At some point, it becomes a game: can you message someone without being noticed by Ms. Winter or your teammates? It is difficult to say who is following what agenda. Early on, I find myself enveloped in the conspiracy and enjoy the thrills of the twists and turns it takes.
I found the interactions with all the characters and fellow participants in Posthumous deeply engaging. I was pulled aside into a small group as an observer even before easing into the experience, which was a bit strange, but activated my “player” mindset at once. Although there is a lot going on and you can never know when you will be moved to a different room for your next encounter, the plot ends up unfolding nicely, at least from my experience. I was amazed by the precision of the technicians running the show as well as the ability of actors to perform while replying to direct messages simultaneously. Being on one of the three possible tracks, I didn’t spend much time with all twelve characters, but the ones I did interact with were truly amazing. The Recruitment Supervisor, Melinda Winter (Melanie Leon) stormed into our first meeting like a lightning bolt and was able to retain that energy throughout the 90 minute show. (I also later wished I was on a different track to witness this character’s transformation towards the end.) Stephanie Rae (Kadijah Banks) exuded ultimate strength and power, while maintaining a warm and caring facade.
Posthumous would be perfect if only a better onboarding could be added to it. Right now, it is a little muddled. Director Mallory Vance appears first and gives us a short out-of-character forward which, to me, sets the wrong mood for the show. The production design could also be more coherent (some participants used virtual backgrounds, while others didn’t). But those are such minor details in comparison to what the show delivers on that I won’t dwell on them much.
Additionally, I really appreciated the space opened up post-show for the participants to discuss what happened, share their experiences, and ask questions of the actors and creators. Providing an opportunity for participants to decompress and to reflect on the consequences of their actions felt like an extra step of aftercare that is often neglected in digital productions. When there are multiple tracks and some things are unclear, being able to compare notes post-factum feels very satisfactory. Virtual theatre can feel alienating, considering you are returning to your daily life without actually leaving it. That’s why having a communal moment in the form of a post-show debrief/vent is even more valuable in a digital format.
Between the strong performances, tech coordination, engaging story, and feeling of player agency (there are about ten different endings to the experience), Posthumous was a show that rehabilitated Zoom theatre for me. I hardly noticed how much time had passed during the show.
(This review was published on NoProscenium.com on February 14th, 2021)