Writing today’s column felt like the Before Times: Watch plays, write about them, hope other people decide to see them. Except everything we saw was on screens instead of in theaters. We shared the experience with one other person and an old dog. We didn’t care what we were wearing. Sometimes we ate crunchy snacks.
Screens are what we have these days, and we’re lucky to have them. Over the past several months, the choice for theaters – for all performing arts organizations – has been to stream or go silent. We miss the same things you do: crowds, people-watching, running into friends, the powerful connection we feel when we’re in a room together, held together by what’s happening on a stage.
We’re eager to return to live, in-person theater, dance, and music, but we won’t do it until we feel absolutely safe. Which won’t happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, we’ve found that screen casting or mirroring streams to our TV makes them more watchable. And, if you can spring for one, a soundbar with a subwoofer makes them more listenable. Way more.
Here are four plays, all virtual, worth watching and why. We’ve put them in order by which ends first.
Jungle Theater: Kate Cortesi’s “Is Edward Snowden Single?” Cortesi didn’t write her play to go online, but director Christina Baldwin saw the potential for something new: an almost seamless blend of words and technology, very of-the-moment and groundbreaking in its way. Using green screens, split screens, animation, saturated solid colors and two excellent young actors, Becca Hart and Isabella Star LaBlanc (first seen together in “The Wolves”), the Jungle made “Snowden” seem made for streaming.
Along with their main roles as 20-somethings Mimi and April, Hart and LaBlanc play multiple characters in a jam-packed, fast-moving (maybe slightly too busy) comedy about a friendship challenged, a romance imagined and the meaning of integrity. FMI and tickets ($35). Some adult language. Audio description version available. Through Saturday, Dec. 26.
Guthrie Theater: “Dickens’ Holiday Classic.” For a time, because COVID, there wasn’t going to be a “Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie this year. “We canceled everything,” Artistic Director Joe Haj said Friday in a virtual conversation with filmmaker E.G. Bailey. “We shut down. Everything was gone. There wasn’t a path to getting ‘Christmas Carol’ on stage.”
But Haj didn’t want to skip this year. To him, Charles Dickens’ story of empathy, humanity and transformation was “as important now as it ever has been in its 177-year history.” Not to mention its 46-year history at the Guthrie.
So the Guthrie teamed up with E.G. Bailey and Shá Cage’s Freestyle Films company to create a filmed version of the dramatic readings Dickens once gave for live audiences. The story is divided into four parts, each featuring a different actor in a solo performance. All of the actors – Charity Jones, Ryan Colbert, Meghan Kreidler and Nathaniel Fuller – have appeared in Guthrie “Christmas Carols” past.
Shot over 11 days on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage, using costumes and set pieces from “A Christmas Carol” (and following strict COVID protocols), it’s the ghost story we know and love, pared down and told more intimately. Minus the big sets, huge cast, turntable stage, crowd scenes and special effects, the story is more direct and the language more beautiful.
“Dickens’ Holiday Classic” is not just a pandemic-era substitute for the Guthrie’s usual holiday spectacle. It’s a gem in its own right. During the virtual conversation, Bailey described it as “a Palestinian-American [Haj] and a Liberian-American [Bailey] telling one of the greatest English stories ever.” He also pointed out that it was filmed by “the most diverse film crew in the city.”
“Dickens’ Holiday Classic” is available on demand, meaning you can watch it whenever you want. FMI and tickets ($10; free to K-12 schools). Through Thursday, Dec. 31.
Walking Shadow Theatre Company: Charlie Bethel’s “The Odyssey.” This isn’t a Walking Shadow production, but a filmed performance, using multiple cameras, of Bethel doing his one-man show. And this isn’t Chapman’s Homer, but Bethel’s own adaptation of the epic tale in contemporary language, with enough familiar phrases – “rosy-fingered dawn,” “wine-dark sea” – to keep us anchored to the original.
If Homer were alive today, he would love this version, because it speaks so broadly and makes “The Odyssey” so accessible.
Bethel was a gifted storyteller. He died in 2017, and the Charlie Bethel Legacy Project has partnered with Walking Shadow to make “The Odyssey” available on demand. In March, Walking Shadow will present Bethel’s version of “Gilgamesh.” It was Bethel’s “Beowulf” that Walking Shadow’s John Heimbuch memorably performed at the Minnesota Fringe in 2019 and streamed earlier this year, near the start of the pandemic.
Watching “The Odyssey” reminded us of Stephen Yoakam’s “An Iliad,” which the Guthrie presented in 2013. Maybe this is how these ancient stories should be told, by one brilliant actor alone on a stage. FMI and tickets ($10 minimum choose-your-price). Contains adult language. On demand through Thursday, Dec. 31.
Guthrie Theater, PlayCo (New York), Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC), American Repertory Theater at Harvard University and Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “This Is Who I Am.” For the second time this year, Guthrie audiences can see a play by Palestinian playwright Zuabi. The first was in January in the Dowling Studio, when the Guthrie presented another theater’s production of his play “Grey Rock.” For “This Is Who I Am,” the Guthrie was part of a national cohort of arts institutions who got together to support a world premiere.
This is a livestream in the true sense of the word: Every performance is live. (There were technical difficulties on the day we saw it, and after a pause the actors started over.) The story – an estranged father and son, one in Palestine and the other in New York, trying to connect by cooking a family recipe together over Zoom – feels immediate and personal in a time when online connections with loved ones are all we have. The play is also about grief and loss; the father’s wife/son’s mother has recently died, and the recipe is one she always prepared for the family. It’s a peasant dish she explained by saying “This is who I am.”
It almost seems silly (because how could we tell if it weren’t true?), but we cared that we were watching a live performance. It made a difference. We felt closer to being in a real theater with an in-person audience.
Ramsey Faragallah (“Bull,” “Homeland,” “The Blacklist”) is the father, Yousof Sultani (“The Brave,” “Empire,” “Chicago Fire”) the son. Evren Odcikin of Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the director, with the Guthrie’s Joseph Haj serving as production dramaturg. FMI and tickets (start at $15.99). Through Sunday, Jan. 3. Note: Tickets are sold by Woolly Mammoth and all times are EST.
And what about ‘The Stand’?
If timing is everything, we’re confused by “The Stand,” the new limited-event TV series that premiered on CBS All Access last Thursday.
It’s based on a 1978 Stephen King novel that sold millions of copies. At more than 1,000 pages, it’s a page-turner. For the new TV series, King wrote a new ending, one that gives Fannie a bigger role. (That was not a spoiler. Showrunner Ben Cavell told Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday about it during an online conversation before the series premiere.)
So what’s it about? A pandemic that starts when a weaponized strain of flu gets loose in the world. People start sneezing, coughing and running fevers. Soon 7 billion are dead. A few survive. Some are good and some are evil.
When COVID hit, a lot of people watched Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller “Contagion.” Google “Best Pandemic Movies” and “Virus Outbreak Movies” and you’ll find many lists online. Post-apocalyptic films are entertaining, with limitless opportunities for gruesome special effects.
An early scene in episode 1 of “The Stand” takes place in a small church filled with people, all dead. They’re bloated and gross and swarming with maggots. A later scene in the same episode shows dump trucks emptying bodies into pits.
We’ve read and enjoyed many Stephen King books. We’ve seen and enjoyed several movies based on Stephen King books. But the more we saw of episode 1, the more uncomfortable we became. Uncomfortable and sad and borderline angry.
Maybe “The Stand” is just too close to real life. Today, right now, there are more than 18 million COVID cases and 323,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. New episodes will air every Thursday until Feb. 11. How many will be dead by then?
And maybe “The Stand” is too close to Christmas?
It’s being called “the most 2020 show,” like that’s a good thing. Thanks, but we’ll pass.