Sunday, February 21, 2021

‘Posthumous’ Reveals the Corporate Realia of the Digital Afterlife (Review)

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 on February 14th, 2021)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Gentle ‘Hearts of Cranes’ invite you to heal the world

Manatsu Tanaka teaches you to fold origami and not to lose hope

When I was growing up, origami got very popular amongst my friends at some point. The Japanese art of folding paper was all the craze in my Russian middle school: frogs, boats, and flowers were spilling out of backpacks and pockets. And, of course, cranes. They represented a different side of origami art, aimed not at producing a variety of shapes but devoting oneself to a practice of making a single shape of a crane repeatedly. There is a belief that if you make 1000 cranes your wish will come true. We were told a story about a Japanese girl, Sasaki Sadako, who had leukemia in the aftermath of the radiation after the Hiroshima bombing. She started folding 1000 cranes hoping that her wish to live will be granted. Few hundred cranes in she became too weak to continue and died before her senbazuru (literally meaning “1000 cranes”) was completed.           

Manatsu Tanaka as Saki in 'Hearts of Cranes'

I haven’t folded origami since I was 12. But the memory of this practice is linked for me with the fun of communal activity and sadness of Sasaki Sadako’s story. I am reminded of both feelings at once at Hearts of Cranes, a remote performance piece, produced by You&I theatre company. Manatsu Tanaka, the author, and the actor portraying Saki, guides a single audience member through the process of folding an origami crane while sharing stories and inviting the participant to reflect on the power of wishing, hope, and healing. Landing somewhere in between an origami lesson and a friendly chat, Hearts of Cranes is a meditative performance perfect for quieting the anxieties of our trying times. 

If not for the repeated consent check-ins (which are not necessary for the most part) I would completely dissolve in this experience, relaxed by the spell of Tanaka’s soft and friendly voice. It might be difficult for a performer to read another person in the Zoom room so a constant verbal temperature check is used. “I want to tell you a story. Is this OK?” Such careful inquiries take me out of the natural flow of the conversation but at the same time make me revise my understanding of consent in immersive theatre. By buying a ticket to a show, what are we really agreeing to?

Don’t worry, Hearts of Cranes is not one of those experiences that try the participant’s limits. The most challenging part is to do all the paper folding right. Tanaka is there to guide you through the process patiently and even if you won’t produce the most elegant origami piece, it is what’s in the heart of the crane that is important (you’ll find out more at the show). There is something powerful and beautiful in the simple act of crafting together. It creates an extra plane of connectedness, aided, of course, by technology. 

Not only is Tanaka a skillful origami master and storyteller, but they are also quite inventive when it comes to manipulating the capabilities of a video call. At one point they scroll a sheet of paper in a tube and put it around the camera, so I can only see their eye. Fun and intimate and maybe a bit intimidating, I can’t believe I haven’t seen this gesture anywhere yet! The performer seamlessly navigates video transitions in simple yet effective ways. It’s easy to forget how demanding performing on Zoom is: not only do you have to maintain contact with the participant but also run your own tech. 

As much as I wish for COVID to go away, I will certainly miss the DIY, heartfelt, poetic shows like Hearts of Cranes. I guess I am off to making my 2000 cranes, one thousand for the world to heal, another for the theatre to keep the tenderness and gentle beauty of a folded paper bird.   

Monday, November 9, 2020

Manhattan Becomes A Charming, Surreal Montmartre in ‘Voyeur’ (Review)

Bated Breath makes creative use of pandemic restrictions in a sidewalk promenade show

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(This review was published on on October 27th)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

‘The Homes We Build’ Questions Our Notion of Family (Review)

Twin Alchemy’s LARP for two explores love and life-long commitment

I have already forgotten the innocent sweetness of “playing house” in kindergarten. By using tree leaves as “money” to pay for the “groceries,” “baking” sand cakes and decorating them with dandelions, and tucking “kids” to sleep under the tall elm that served as a bedroom in our imaginary house, we did everything we saw adults do and strove to recreate our own perfect nuclear family.

In some sense, The Homes We Build by Austin-based Twin Alchemy Collective invites its participants to revisit this childhood activity, only with all the cultural and experiential baggage we’ve acquired as adults. This interactive, participatory experience is a role-playing game in which two people relive a 60-year relationship over the duration of four hours. They can be themselves or create characters, using a questionnaire that the creators of the experience—Katie Green, Sean Moran, and Michael Rau—have included in the orientation package.

The Homes We Build starts with the orientation package, a long and thoroughly constructed PDF, which is emailed to the participants in advance. I would like to emphasize how well it is designed, as it made me feel safe and cared for for the duration of the entire journey. It covers every question I could think of, starting with props that will be needed (nothing extravagant), safety and consent guidelines, worksheets for creating characters from scratch, and ending with a questionnaire to facilitate safe off-boarding and reflection on what happened. The experience itself is self-guided and there is an MP3 file that comes with the bundle. It can be completed in one session or multiple sessions.

For those who would like to clarify something or generally receive the information better aurally, there is a Zoom meeting preceding the experience. Sean Moran and Michael Rau go over the orientation file and answer participants’ questions. Attendance is optional; however, it is helpful in terms of highlighting the importance of details that can be missed in a quick skim of the initial document. Seeing two of the three authors of The Homes We Build on the screen also created an additional level of trust, and trust is key in LARP. You have to trust the other person enough to go through such an intimate experience and for The Homes We Build you have to be physically in the same space. Luckily, I didn’t have to search long in my quarantine bubble before I was able to enlist my friend Natalia to play my other half. So, armed with a coin, a rolled-up sock, a trashcan, and a few other props, we ventured into a new life as “Chris” and “Nora” by pressing “play” on the audio player.

A placid male voice comes in after the sound of a meditation chime. The narrator acts as a sort of director, describing various situations, voicing the thoughts of our characters, and giving prompts for improvisation. He also tells us how much time we have for a scene. The Homes We Build consists of a couple dozen of vignettes, each a glimpse into the lives of two people in a romantic relationship. The journey together appropriately starts with the first date, the scene to which the longest period of time is allocated. Understandable, since both of us need not only to find out everything we want to know about the other person, but also to find out who our characters are and slip into a new skin. The awkwardness of the first date layers perfectly on the awkwardness of the beginning of the LARP. But you would be surprised how quickly the transition to a full relationship happens. By the end of the 25-minute “snapshot” of our first meeting, I could literally feel the butterflies in the stomach of my character, Nora, who was falling for her new guy.

Some prompts are only meant for one pair of our ears and we have to toss a coin to determine who will possess information that the other one doesn’t have. I found these moments in The Homes We Build to be the most fruitful in terms of improvising a scene together. There was one vignette where I was offered a choice of three situations that lead my character into a certain state of mind. That narrative fork felt like a relief after being told what is happening to me by the experience. As much as my character wanted control over her life, I, as a player, wanted to take some authorial control and to challenge the character, to build her arc as well as as embody her reactions. As the player, I was given a chance to be creative with how the story unfolds. But as a character, I got to make my own decisions ( right or wrong) and not just react to the circumstances that were handed over to me by the almighty “playwright.” I wish there were more instances like this, yet, there were limitations to that creative license.

The experience of going through The Homes We Build is likely to be unique to every twosome of players. (I also enjoyed how Twin Alchemy Collective incorporated physical touch into the experience but don’t want to give away any spoilers.) Despite the pre-existing script, we each bring our own baggage and fantasies to the experience, which might bring forth different aspects of it. Along the way come topics of trust, responsibility, commitment, caregiving, and death.Going through scenes indicating relationship milestones of various significance and scale evoked a lot of emotions in me. Living through happy occasions, trying times, and everyday moments together mostly felt very real but, occasionally, it was puzzling and pushed me out of the experience.

It felt like the characters that we had created, an asexual trans male and a cisgender female, were shoe-horned into the paradigm of a heteronormative relationship. The experience’s creators didn’t set limits on who we dreamed up but the scenarios they gave us didn’t really take gender and sexual fluidity into account. We might be discussing how the institute of marriage means very little to us, and then, in the next scene, we would be asked to say our wedding vows by the LARP. We could be talking about focusing on our careers for a while and not having kids, and then next prompt joyously announces that we are pregnant (or had gotten a green light on adoption). For myself and my friend, in order to keep up with the development of the story that somebody had already pre-written for us, we had to really stretch our imaginations. Spoiler: that’s how we ended up with going parachute jumping instead of a wedding and an adopted son who was practically left on our stoop. As my LARP partner noticed, “Sometimes things just happen.”

But both my character and I were outraged by how control over one’s body and personal life can get snatched from you in an experience like this, especially for non-conforming subjects. This might be read simultaneously as both the flaw of the experience (I felt like I am being forced to do something I don’t want to do) and its biggest success (in a very dramatic way, I faced the pressure marginalized others feel in real life). Learning not only about yourself, but also getting closer to understanding the experience of the “other” is precious.

After all, isn’t that what art is about?

(This review was published on on 9.11.10)

Friday, July 31, 2020

‘The Delegation’ Reminds Us of the Power of the People (Review)

Coney puts Russians and Brits into a virtual hotel for a diplomatic treaty 

“I wanna be in the room where it happens.” 

This is a sentiment expressed by the character of Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton but is also a desire familiar to many people. But what if there is no single room where a small group of powerful people determines the fate of the world? What if there are, in fact, many rooms in which decisions are made daily and it’s the summation of them that constitutes an outcome?     

The Delegation, an interactive virtual experience by the British company Coney, looks into the power distribution of pandemic capitalism on the international arena. To do that, the director Tassos Stevens has created a virtual hotel, “Hotel Zajets,” where he acts as a concierge/moderator during a convening of two diplomatic delegations. The audience members (numbering a little over 30 participants on the day I attended) are assembled into delegations of two countries, Russia and the UK. The experience was a part of the International Summer Festival of Art’s The Access Point, a platform for site-specific and immersive work taking place in Russia and all over the world, online. As an attendee of this festival, I find myself as part of the  Russian delegation.

We, the delegates, are encouraged to “check-in” via the hotel’s web site before our scheduled Zoom meeting. Among other things, I am asked to select a room number, think of my favorite word in my mother tongue, and choose a song to represent my country. The songs will be played later during time set aside for socializing and our  favorite words will be offered as a prompt to strike up conversation during  more intimate hangouts at the virtual bar.          

Although the Zoom-based Hotel Zajets has no depiction of its interiors, its bare-bones design provides the delegates with all the expected facilities. On Zoom, there is a common space for official business, breakout rooms for deliberations, and the hotel bar for more intimate gatherings. These “quarters” are regulated by the moderators of the experience and the participants are simply moved from one room to the other at the appropriate time. In addition to Zoom, there are some parts of the hotel which the participants can use freely, namely the Conference Center hosted on a separate web-based platform with a mysterious Diamond suite guarded by a passcode. In addition to these tools, there are a couple of Google Docs to which the participants can contribute and a WhatsApp channel for those who seek an alternative way to communicate. And simultaneous audio translation to both Russian and English is available during the official program to all. 

The imaginary grounds of the game property are vast and the program is packed. We have “three days and nights”-worth of activities (which comes to nearly two and a half hours in real-time). The main agenda of each of the three days is to divide a certain amount of points between the two countries. Each delegation is split in two parts, North and South, for working out the best strategy for each round and over the long run. Every day after the strategizing session, Russia North meets with the UK North to negotiate, as do their Southern colleagues. At the final stage, everybody comes together and, after building up suspense, the score is announced.        

Although the main agenda of this game appears to be that of diplomacy, dividing an arbitrary number of points seems suspiciously superficial to me right away, especially without any correlation with the real world. The moderator of our group assures us that these are just points, and, if we wish, we can assign them some meaning. But with such an oblique set of instructions, how can you not become suspicious of your fellow delegates, or the representatives from the UK, or even the conference organizers? The seemingly transparent design of the game screams of conspiracy to me. 

Even when I am left alone in my “hotel” room every night, I can’t shake off my paranoia. After each day of lectures, deliberations, and mingling, the delegates are offered to shut the door to their room by turning off their camera; we each listen to an audio track in solitude. These mini contemplative sessions are a nice counterbalance to the highly interactive and occasionally intense main body of the experience. The recordings are also used to reinforce the suspicion and to pour some oil on the flames of secrecy. You are alone in your room. Or are you? What will you do if somebody tries to reach out?    

There are also informal interactions at the hotel bar in small groups of three or four  people every evening. We receive prompts for these sessions, some quite innocent sounding (our favorite words in our languages), some potentially heated (opinions on how your respective governments are managing the pandemic). Depending on who is in the room, these icebreaking chats  can be very awkward or heartfelt, just like in real life. The synchronous live language interpretation that is provided during the official events of the day is absent here, so the delegates are left to figure out the language barrier on their own. I enjoyed these pockets of total improvisation in the otherwise structured game. The participants were free to continue talking about work, use the given prompts, or just talk about whatever they want. 

(A few minor spoilers follow.)

As we soon find out, the game itself allows for some radical creativity coming from the participants, if that’s what your delegation chooses to explore. I won’t give away any spoilers or go much deeper into any detail, but towards the third round of dividing points my group (Russia North) decides that we are through with the meaningless activity of dividing points, and propose to our British colleagues (UK North) an action of solidarity with those who are repressed by our governments. It might sound like an idea coming out of the blue in my retelling of it, but there is a point in the experience where the program takes a sharp political turn. 

Soon, nearly everybody else joins in and the points are forgotten. We are reminded that our actions in the world of the game might have consequences in our lives, and it’s up to us to make it happen. Unfortunately, the big reveal in The Delegation lands a little flat because of our political activism and only confirms the same conclusion that we the participants came to collectively: that power is distributed into many hands and it’s up to us to use it for the right cause. Rather than speculating about some room where all decisions are being made by others, we should take charge and seek to make “the room where it happens” our own.         

(This review was published on on 7/31/20)                                        

Thursday, June 25, 2020

'To My Distant Love’ Serenades Us Over the Phone (Review)

A most intimate opera invites you to fall in love from afar

NYC’s On Site Opera has been challenging the proscenium setting, traditionally associated with this art, since 2012. The company has produced site-specific work at the Bronx Zoo, the Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, among other unexpected venues. In their new remote production of To My Distant Love, a one-on-one live telephone experience, the audience member is invited to choose their own setting. Where would you take a call from your long-distance beloved? In your favorite armchair by the window, at your desk, or maybe during a walk? Making this decision already feels like an act of co-creating the piece, especially since this responsibility is bestowed upon you from the company whose entire artistic premise is to base the production on a specific location. 

Inspired by making the creative choice of the location for To My Distant Love, I head to the local park. I sit on a bench, allowing the sounds and smells of the environment to sink in. I pull out my phone and re-read two letters from my beloved, one sent to me the day before, the other one, two hours before the scheduled call. The letters are brief but full of tenderness and longing. They include the English translations of Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte (“to the distant beloved”) song cycle. I read the translated poetry of Alois Isidor Jeitteles once more to tune into the feelings of anxious anticipation of reuniting with a loved one. The first couplet reads:               

I sit on the hill, gazing 
Out into the misty blue land,
Toward the distant fields, seeking the place
Where I first saw you, my beloved.

I lift my gaze towards the Manhattan skyline, made to look like an impressionist painting by blue haze. Living in New Jersey, I haven’t been to my favorite city in nearly three months and can fully relate to the yearning of a separated lover. As I admire the city, so seemingly distant but so close to my heart, my phone rings. 

“Darling, is that really you?” says the voice on the other end. 

A brief dialogue follows in which I improvise my replies about how much I miss seeing my beloved. The interaction feels effortless thanks to the warmth radiated by Jennifer Zetlan’s voice. But I can feel that my beloved is anxious to share her songs with me, which she says she wrote to keep me company while we are apart, and we move to music after a short prelude.  

Depending on the date and time of your personal performance, you might be connected with Jennifer Zetlan, soprano, or Mario Diaz-Moresco, baritone. David Shimoni and Spencer Myer, respectively, play the piano. Six songs of the cycle are sung in the original German and follow each other in a seamless flow. A sweet monologue in English (by Monet Hurst-Mendoza) reminiscing on our anniversary celebration is added to reinforce the personal connection to the songs.  

Unfortunately, the singing, the most anticipated part of this 20-minute experience, was mostly disappointing. And not for a lack of talent by the performer. It quickly became apparent to me how unfitting phone technology is at carrying musical nuances. I made sure to use noise-canceling headphones and we tested the connection during our dialogue in the beginning, and everything worked just fine. But as soon as we transitioned to music, the connection started lagging. It sounded to me like as the singer got farther away from the microphone her voice became a bit robotic, distorted by the phone and the acoustics of the space she was in, kind of like when you are talking to somebody in speaker mode. The specific qualities of the sound over the phone I perceived as normal during the dialogue felt disturbing during the musical part. 

The digital format of our new virtual theatre is especially cruel to music-based live performances, twisting and distorting beautiful voices and virtuosic instrument playing. Luckily, the premise of To My Distant Love gave me firm ground to stand upon and still enjoy the performance. After all, my beloved was calling me on the phone and I could clearly hear her giving her best to serenade me. I closed my eyes and let myself be taken by the songs, no matter the imperfect audio quality. 

To My Distant Love is grand and intimate at once, much like love itself. There is something spectacular in combining the monumental sound of opera singing with the intimacy of a phone call. I only wish the technology would cooperate.   

(This review was published on NoProscenium on June 24th)  

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 on May 26)