Streaming theater: A critic’s dream season for COVID times

Emilee Geist

In a recent Instagram Live interview with actress Jennifer Garner, Dr. Anthony Fauci gave a sobering assessment of when the public can return to theaters with a sense of safety. The short answer from the infectious disease expert is not anytime soon — and definitely not without a mask, even […]

In a recent Instagram Live interview with actress Jennifer Garner, Dr. Anthony Fauci gave a sobering assessment of when the public can return to theaters with a sense of safety. The short answer from the infectious disease expert is not anytime soon — and definitely not without a mask, even after a reasonably effective vaccine is available.

Digital performance will likely be the main form of “theater” for the next 12 months. No, it cannot replace the real thing. And no, I don’t like this timeline one bit.

Theater at its essence is what happens when strangers physically come together to enter a shared fiction. It’s a place where great reckonings occur in little (and not so little) rooms, to repurpose a line from Shakespeare.

But I’m coming around to the idea that the experience can be approximated online. The Old Vic’s In Camera series, in which a performance is streamed live from the stage of the storied London venue, has borne this out.

What does the Old Vic do right? Well, beyond casting Andrew Scott in Stephen Beresford’s monologue play “Three Kings” or enticing Claire Foy and Matt Smith to reprise their performances (with the requisite social distancing) in Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” the In Camera program successfully demarcates its digital offerings from the usual distracted bustle of our web browsing.

This is appointment viewing for a limited engagement. Anticipation for the event is heightened by the internet version of house management. A bell tolls as a BBC-ish voice informs the audience that the performance is about to begin.

Although we’re not inside the theater with the actor, the spectacle of the bare stage is enough to awaken our sense memories. I watched “Three Kings” at my kitchen table, and though I confess I carried my laptop to fix a cup of tea midway through the hourlong performance, my attention was undivided — a rare achievement when our buzzing phones are still in reach.

Technologically speaking, the Old Vic isn’t breaking new ground. But it’s smoothly offering a facsimile of the old experience. Live performance at an acceptable remove, for now.

I’m sure theater and tech are experimenting on new modes of performance that a Luddite like me wouldn’t even have the vocabulary to describe. But I’m a meat and potatoes guy — give me an actor, a play and a way to cordon myself off from household commotion.

While we’re waiting impatiently to once again put our hands together as a collective body, here’s a season’s worth of relatively straightforward digital theater ideas I wish someone would commission.

1. A play by Jeremy O. Harris for Jane Fonda

"Slave Play" writer Jeremy O. Harris

“Slave Play” writer Jeremy O. Harris

(Jenny Anderson)

In a New York Times By the Book interview, Fonda named Harris, author of the groundbreaking Broadway drama “Slave Play,” as one of the writers working today she admires most. A light bulb immediately went off: Why doesn’t he write her a play? Harris isn’t afraid to have those transgressive conversations about race that leave nothing unsaid. A firebrand herself, Fonda wouldn’t balk at portraying white fragility, but I’ll leave it to Harris’ imagination to dream up the combustible context. And since we’re tapping heavyweights, Denzel Washington would make a superb sparring partner.

2. Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett in a new play by Sarah Ruhl

Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Charlotte Bydwell and Stephen Kunken in Richard Nelson's recent play.

Clockwise from top left: Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Charlotte Bydwell and Stephen Kunken in “Incidental Moments of the Day,” one of the Apple family plays.

(Jason Ardizzone-West)

Married in real life, Sanders and Plunkett have been playing siblings in Richard Nelson’s Apple family play series that just culminated in a Zoom trilogy. Since they’re already living together, why not commission a play about marriage under the strain of quarantine? Ruhl, a dramatist committed to both playfulness and sincerity, seems to me the ideal choice.

3. David Hyde Pierce in a comic harangue by Christopher Durang

David Hyde Pierce

David Hyde Pierce

(Alex J. Berliner / ABImages)

We need a playwright to give voice to the frustration and anxiety we’re all feeling these days, but we also need a writer who can relieve the pressure with some deliciously coarse laughter. Durang once had me guffawing so hard in the theater that I was in danger of asphyxiating. A veteran of Durang’s work, Pierce understands the necessity of comic restraint yet isn’t scared to succumb to cathartic hilarity. If a second banana is needed, there can be only one option: Kristine Nielsen, who played Sonia opposite Pierce’s Vanya in the Broadway production of Durang’s Tony-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and is perhaps the greatest Durang performer on planet Earth. This idea has the Mark Taper Forum written all over it.

4. A Jackie Sibblies Drury Zoom play

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury

(Mark Abramson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Anyone who saw Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview” knows the enlightening mischief she can wield with voice-overs. This commission would simply ask her to write a play expressly for Zoom. Nothing more need be said. If she accepts, she will deliver a drama that no one else could have imagined, never mind write.

5. Young Jean Lee in a solo musical about the apocalypse

Playwright Young Jean Lee

Playwright Young Jean Lee

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lee’s “Straight White Men” was the first play written by an Asian American woman to make it to Broadway. But her heart and soul belong to the experimental theater scene. One never knows what to expect from a Young Jean Lee piece. She once devised a cabaret for herself and her band with the title “We’re Gonna Die.” (It was a delight.) The digital idea here is simple: Lee responds in story and song to the welter of horrors befalling our world: the rise of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, racial injustice and environmental collapse. I’m ready to spearhead a crowdfunding campaign myself.

Holiday bonus: Jefferson Mays reprising his solo turn in ‘A Christmas Carol’

Jefferson Mays

Jefferson Mays

(Robert Zuckerman)

Charles Dickens’ chestnut, a stage perennial and budgetary stopgap, usually brings out the Scrooge in me. But Mays revitalized the classic tale in a theatrical version brilliantly directed by Michael Arden at the Geffen Playhouse. A virtuoso’s virtuoso, Mays incarnated the story’s major figures, past, present and future, by summoning up ghosts within himself. His trick: a voice of infinite variety matched with narrative intelligence and theatrical brio. If this production were translated to the digital realm for the Geffen’s innovative Stayhouse series, it would become my Christmas gift of choice in 2020. Why not fill the theater’s depleted coffers and end this disastrous year on a hopeful note?

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