Category Archives: streaming

The Tempest – Bethesda and Streaming

The Tempest, thought to be one of the last plays written by William Shakespeare, is one of his most often reinterpreted.  A new adaptation by wordsmith Aaron Posner and slight-of-hand master Teller (of Penn and Teller), who also co-direct, brings the themes of perception, manipulation, and illusion to the forefront.  It is the magic of theater fully visualized.

The story swirls around Prospero whose evil brother, Antonio, has usurped his position as Duke of Milan.  Now living on an enchanted island with his teenage daughter, Miranda, Prospero has become a powerful magician served by an able spirit, Ariel.  The only other inhabitant of the island is Caliban, the vengeful misshapen son of a witch who feels the island is rightfully his.  Fate has brought Antonio’s ship close by, and Prospero whips up a storm.  With Ariel’s help, Prospero grounds the vessel and scatters those aboard onto the shore.  This proves to be the first step in his plan to regain his position and give his child the life she deserves.  If Ariel performs his tasks well, Prospero promises to free him and bury the book of spells forever.

Playwright Posner has done a skillful job of trimming the sprawling plot and making visible some aspects of the text that are more often just implied.  In the beginning, he illustrates long narrative passages by bringing the relevant people on stage to act out the descriptions.  This technique not only makes the play even more engaging, it helps newcomers keep straight the myriad characters and their interconnections.  

The circus-like atmosphere of the island — complete with grotesques of all sorts— is also made bolder by the first-rate cast.  Prospero (Eric Hissom in tumbling waves of anger, love, and self-awareness) is presented as a cross between a magician and a carnival ringmaster, with a wand rather than his customary staff.  Several traditional magic tricks are woven into the production, with the most gasp-inducing being a transformation of Prospero’s own costume.  Teller’s influence is most notable in the rendering of Ariel (a uniquely suited Nate Dendy) as soft of tone and palette, with quick hands and a mischievous nature.  Caliban’s twisted essence is portrayed by two intertwined muscular actors (the awesome pair of Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers) whose menacing limbs and animistic movement were choreographed by Matt Kent and Renée Jaworsk of the revolutionary dance company Pilobolus.  Two roles — the compassionate counselor Gonzalo (a stately Naomi Jacobson) and the delusional drunkard Stephano (a winking Kate Eastwood Norris) — have been gender flipped which deepens certain aspects of their characters.

Eric Hissom (Prospero) and Nate Dendy (Ariel) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Posner and Teller have surrounded themselves with a creative team that brilliantly supports their special take on this classic.  The scenic design by Daniel Conway inventively blends painted backdrops framed in old-fashioned footlights with elements of a ship’s rigging.  The bluesy music of Tom Waits has been substituted for the songs from Shakespeare’s time, supplying a moody soundtrack that is vibrantly interpreted by Kanysha Williams and Lizzie Hagstedt as “goddesses” Juno and Iris.  (A third god, Saturn, usually played by Ian Riggs, was absent from the performance I saw.)  Andre Pluess’s sound design also incorporates critical musical effects that emphasize the action.  In addition to the men’s dapper suits, costume designer Sarah Cubbage has given Miranda (an exuberant Megan Graves) practical loose fitting overalls and outfitted the crooning Iris with an eye popping red bustier.

It’s thrilling to see the dreamy and poetic aspects of The Tempest translated into spellbinding visual imagery.  The live production at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre (4545 East-West Highway) is sold out, but streaming tickets are still available making the play accessible to a wider audience.  The simple three camera production can only be streamed from the Round House site, but the Vimeo platform is stable on most browsers and the sound quality is high even on a laptop.  (Nice size captions are also available.)  Runtime of the recording is 2 hours and 10 minutes, which makes for clean storytelling.  Tickets must be purchased no later than January 29 by calling 240.644.1100, ordering online at RoundHouseTheatre.org, or visiting the Round House box office.  On Demand access will be available until February 12.

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Kiss Me Kate on BroadwayHD

Wonderful news for those who missed the Tony Award winning 1999 revival of Kiss Me Kate.  Its sister 2001 West End production, nominated for 8 Olivier Awards, will arrive on BroadwayHD this Sunday, with a stellar creative team and four gifted stars in the leads.  Initially winning for Best Musical in 1949, Kiss Me Kate took home awards for Bella and Samuel Spewack’s  snappy script and Cole Porter’s witty songs, some of which might sound familiar even if you didn’t know their origin.  The original cast recording is so woven into our cultural fabric, it resides in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

The vehicle is a welcome addition for lovers of big splashy musicals since the action revolves around a big splashy musical.  It is the Baltimore opening night of a new musical production based on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, conceived, directed and starring the dedicated but egotistical Fred Graham.  Despite their tumultuous relationship, he has asked his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi to play Katherine to his  Petruchio, hoping that her brief stint in Hollywood films will attract financial backers.  Graham has also started a flirtation with Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca.  She in turn is involved with cast member Bill Calhoun who, using Graham’s name, has racked up a large debt to a loan shark.  Viewers will benefit from doing as the song says and brushing up their Shakespeare in order to follow the threads from Taming of the Shrew as the focus swings back to the Fred and Lilli storyline.  Period should be kept in mind since many plot points hinge on way-pre-#metoo era behavior.

Captured during its London run and adapted by Michael Blakemore from his own stage work, the streaming production is flowingly directed by Chris Hunt using a team of 7 high-def cameras.  His mixture of perspectives never breaks the illusion that we are watching a proscenium stage.  This is particular noticeable during the flashy dance numbers set to songs that actually forward the story and character development.  In a twist, the theater audiences is used as Graham’s opening night house.  Captivating choreography by Kathleen Marshall makes the most of the skillful ensemble, blending slinky dance styles with pure athleticism. Scenic designer Robin Wagner defines sense of place by flattening the Shrew sets and coloring them in storybook fashion while keeping the representation of backstage realistic and stark.  All the better to bring out the brilliant detailing of Martin Pakledinaz’s Tony Award winning on and off stage wardrobes (particularly Lois’s peek-a-boo outfits) and Paul Huntley’s delightful wig and hat designs.  

Rachel York as Lilli/Katherine and Brent Barrett as Fred/Petruchio in Kiss Me Kate. Photo provided by BroadwayHD.

It is always thrilling to see a stage filled with a large company such as the ensemble of 13 who here play Graham’s troupe.  The cast members led by Broadway veterans Brent Barrett and Rachel York all sing clearly with nuanced interpretation.  Nancy Anderson and Michael Berresse as Lois and Bill give us the playful duet Why Can’t You Behave.  The two strong opening act numbers — Another Op’nin’, Another Show and  Too Darn Hot — feature Kaye E. Brown as Lilli’s assistant Hattie and Nolan Frederick as Fred’s man Paul.  Even Jack Chissick and Teddy Kempner as two gangsters have their moment in the spotlight’s glow.

Kiss Me Kate is engaging family entertainment in traditional style.  Director Hunt eliminates intermission and uses movie-like blackouts to replace scene changes, so runtime is cut to 2 hours and 27 minutes.  This streaming exclusive will be available to BroadwayHD subscribers beginning January 15, 2023.  Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com for pricing options.

MCC’s Space Dogs on BroadwayHD

Over the last few years in particular, streaming theater has developed into a genuine and distinct art form.  Done right, it marries the excitement of attending a singular event in person with a profound level of intimacy.  Many shows have traveled well from one medium to the other.  Some — like MCC’s Space Dogs — are arguably even better viewed up close and personal.

Developed and performed by actors/musicians Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, Space Dogs covers in impressive detail the story behind the early days of the Space Race.  In order to learn the effects of lower gravity and increased radiation on life, Russia’s Sputnik program took 40 stray dogs off the streets of Moscow and used them for testing.  The most famous of these is Laika, who was the first animal to orbit the Earth.  But Space Dogs takes great care to honor each and every one of these four-legged heroines.  (Yes, they were all female.)

Anyone familiar with Laika’s story will be aware that this tale doesn’t have a happy ending.  However, there is still a great deal of joy to be experienced throughout the show’s 90 minute running time.  Against a six paneled projection wall designed by Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch, the good-natured and talented duo guided by stage director Ellie Heyman fly through dozens of roles with high-energy and knowing winks.  Among his line-up, Blaemire gives gentle voice to Laika, an unwitting participant to scientific history. And as part of his array, Hughes takes on the role of Sergei Korolev, known contemporaneously only as The Chief Designer, portraying him as a man torn between his compassion for his trusting “volunteer” and the hectic pace and lack of funds imposed on him by Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet State.  The dogs are wonderfully represented by malleable stuffed animals that have been given tremendous personality by creator Amanda Villalobos.  

The actors employ cameras and use miniatures and green screen in order to bring the audience into sections of their small scale fuzzy world.  It is these techniques that allow Joe Lukawski, who directed the production for the screen, to more easily expand the audience to include those of us from home.  Footage from the four main cameras in the theater are fluidly mixed with the direct feeds already integrated into the performance.  This level of rapport with our storytellers is a perfect match for a script built around secrets.  And the simple technical effects and stripped down props fit this unique lens.

Van Hughes, Little Gnat, Laika, and Nick Blaemire in MCC Theater’s 2022 production of SPACE DOGS; Photo by Daniel J Vasquez

Based on classified documents that were only released in 2002, the story of political intrigue — AND DOGS — is clear and enlivened with humor, making it appropriate for older children as well as adults.  The varied score with intricate lyrics incorporates rock, electronic dance, rap and ballads.  “A Brief History of Dogs” loudly celebrates those special supporting characters.  “Fill the Void” creates an enveloping soundscape worthy of outer space travel.  And “Fuzziest Loneliest” sung from Laika’s point of view presents a particularly poignant moment.  A taste of the full cast album is still available at https://mcctheater.org/tix/space-dogs/.

A thoroughly gratifying and impactful entry to the BroadwayHD library, Space Dogs manages to be not only informative but playful, and not just because of the dogs.  It can also serve to introduce a world wide audience to the marvelous MCC, one of New York’s leading nonprofit Off-Broadway companies.  Captured live in MCC’s Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater and available exclusively to BHD subscribers, this production was made possible through a collaboration with HMS Media.  The holiday rate of $99.99 for a full year of membership is available through December 8 ($129 after that date.) Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com for more information.

Mr. Saturday Night on BroadwayHD

Launched in 2015 by veteran producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the intention of online platform BroadwayHD is to replicate the Broadway experience for those who do not have access to the Great White Way.  Added to initial listings like She Loves Me are now hundreds of shows including family favorites like Kinky Boots and classics from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The service provides a comfortable entry for those who don’t want to gamble $125 per person to introduce family members to the theater as an entertainment option.

Their latest addition is Mr. Saturday Night, a musical comedy starring the always amiable Billy Crystal who also serves as Executive Producer.  Filmed live at the Nederlander Theater on August 31, 2022, the production is based on Crystal’s self-directed 1992 movie of the same name.  It follows the career of Buddy Young Jr., a fictional Borscht Belt comedian who rose to stardom hosting a Saturday evening television variety show.  His reputation in tatters after an on-air incident, he is now performing before disengaged nursing home residents.  But his mistaken inclusion in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Emmy’s brings him much needed attention from a surprising source.

Whether this offering leaves you kvelling or plotzing will depend in large part on the level of admiration you hold for classic comics such as Phil Silvers, Totie Fields and Buddy Hackett.  (Thanks to YouTube, this admiration needn’t be restricted to those of a certain age.)  The revised script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel doesn’t solve the problem of the original film and Buddy remains a character that is hard to like much less root for.  However, Mr. Crystal’s live performance allows the audience to bathe in his suburb timing and delivery.  In his hands, even the broadest of jokes makes it easy to admire the craft even if it’s not your preferred style of humor.  It should be noted that some of the material is quite blue and may not be suitable for younger family members. 

Crystal has surrounded himself with a terrific, energetic cast.  Shoshana Bean lends her soaring expressive voice to the role of Buddy’s struggling daughter, Susan, while Randy Graff brings deep dimension to Buddy’s loyal-to-a-fault wife Elaine.  The reliable David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated performance in the more stereotypical role of jealous brother, Stan.  Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull do a lot of heavy lifting playing several roles apiece and giving variation to each.  While the charming Chasten Harmon overflows with warmth as Annie Wells, a young and exuberant agent trying to help Buddy rise again.  In a wonderful twist on the original casting, the adults play their teenage selves.

The company of Mr. Saturday Night; photo by Matthew Murphy

As is true with most streaming productions, the show has two directors.  Tony winner John Rando handled the stage production and Matthew Diamond translated it for the home screen.  Sometimes presenting camera angles that would not be seen by a live audience, Diamond— who previously directed The Wiz Live for NBC — employs a style more similar to a television show than a recreation of a theatrical experience.  But this is a musical that relies more on exchanges among two or three characters and less on big production numbers.  Clever projections by Jeff Sugg that enhance a set designed by Scott Pask are well incorporated by the camera work.  And Diamond’s more intimate framing allows home viewers to observes details such as the framed photo of Crystal and his Comic Relief cohorts on the walls of the Friar’s Club set as well as enjoy the moving facial expressions of the entire ensemble.  There are also moments when the live audience is included in a shot and their enthusiastic responses are contagious.  Putting the end credits over individual actor’s faces is a nice touch.  Uptempo music by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green supply enjoyable interludes in the storytelling.  The players’ annunciation is excellent, but there are easy-to-read captions available.

Though modestly produced by Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday Night is lifted by Billy Crystal’s generally appealing performance.  And the central theme of second chances is given unusual spin.  Runtime is two and a half hours, though Act II is clearly marked if you need a stretch break.  Exclusive to BroadwayHD subscribers, this production was made possible by a special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.  Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com to sign up for a special holiday offer of $99.99 for one year (available through December 8) or dip your toe in their stream for $11.99 a month.  The fees make it possible to offer the entire catalogue ad and interruption free.

Detroit 67 – Fayetteville, AR and Streaming

Playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Dominique Morisseau can weave a richer story with a handful of characters than most people can tell with a cast of dozens.  This makes her a great match for TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas: a small space with a worldly audience.  Set against the backdrop of the historic bloody clash between the Detroit police and Black residents, their current production of Morisseau ’s Detroit 67 is all too current in its themes.  To bring in some extra cash, Lank and his sister Chelle are running an off-licensed after-hours bar in their basement.  It is similar to the one that was violently raided by police, sparking five days of rioting that ended in over 40 deaths and thousands of arrests.  As in the play, then-governor Romney had to call in the National Guard and President Johnson provided two army divisions to restore peace.  

Though Morisseau keeps the action confined to the siblings’ basement, she uses exposition sparingly and instead explores the social and emotional impact of the turmoil outside through well-drawn relationships.  We learn that though they are close, Chelle (a simmering Devereau Chumrau) and Lank (Tenisi Davis moving fluidly between tenderness and fury) have conflicting opinions about how to use their small inheritance.  Lank is encouraged in his riskier plan by his close friend Sly (smooth Christopher Alexander Chukwueke).  But his downgrading of the safety net provided by family and friends is challenged by Caroline (pixyish Jenna Krasowski), a young white woman who literally stumbles into his life.  The quintet is rounded out by Bunny (crowd favorite Na’Tosha De’Von), who relishes all  that life brings her way.  Through this battle between dreaming big and playing it safe, Morisseau tells a story that covers race, class, and the lies of the American Dream in a deeply personal and genuine way.  

Christopher Alexander Chukwueke, Devereau Chumrau, Na’Tosha De’Von and Tenisi Davis; photo by Wesley Hitt

Well-timed comebacks and the use of uplifting Motown tunes provide light around the shadows.  The songs of the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and others form a bridge between the characters and the audience and momentarily erase all barriers.  It is the soundtrack of a particular time and place, but also a connector to our world.

The staging by director Dexter J. Singleton is somewhat constrained by Baron Pugh’s detail-oriented set.  Look closely at the walls, and Chelle’s and Lank’s childhoods envelop them.  The essential bar, worn furniture, and decor lend an appropriate hemmed-in vibe to the action.  Costume designer Azalea Fairley visually differentiates the characters, giving Bunny bold prints and highest heels, dressing Chelle in muted tones and flats, and displaying Caroline’s petite curves in Chelle’s cast-offs.  Sound design by Bill Toles expands on the wondrous playlist.

I deeply appreciate the considerate and inclusive opportunity TheatreSquare provides to participate in their varied season.  Their modest four-camera set-up always provides an engaging home experience complete with a warm welcome from their staff and volunteers.  Each streaming pass is good for 24 hours.  The instructions are easy to execute and the recording is of above-average quality. 

As the first piece in Morisseau’s Detroit Project, Detroit ’67 is a thrilling introduction to her potent work.  It is available on-stage and via streaming through Sunday, November 6.  Runtime is approximately 2 ½ hours including intermission.  Tickets are available at https://tix.theatre2.org/events and range from $37-$57 for the live show at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville and $25-$35 for individual and household streaming passes.

F.I.R.E. – Streaming On Demand

To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt.  Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch.  The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room.  The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle.  He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna.  She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.

It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot.  Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit.  A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word.  If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them.  Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit.  While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast.  Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences.  Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum.  Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout.  And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling.  These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them.  Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story.  Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece.  (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.)  Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage.  And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.  

Kierra Bunch, Ella Dershowitz , Aaron Matteson, Nygel D. Robinson, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Jeffrey Bean in F.I.R.E.; Photo by Dora Elmer

As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room.  This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view.  The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red.  The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.

While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form.  F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes.  This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission.  Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.

Judgment Day – Streaming on Demand

From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day.  Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero.  He is also about to die.  On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher.  Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult.  Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.  

Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good.  It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant.  To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana.  Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander.  All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn.  These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper.  The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.

The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment.  Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay.  This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement.  Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds.  Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props.  Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.

The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric.  While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh.  A lot.  (Thank god?)   This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1.  Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99.  Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount. 

Two Sisters and a Piano – Streaming on Demand

1991 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time for the Cuban people.  Perestroika had led to the break up of the Soviet Union, which began pulling troops and support from the Communist island nation.  It is against the backdrop of the resulting shortages and protests that Nilo Cruz sets Two Sisters and a Piano.  While he frequently explores the immigrant experience, here amnesty and escape remain out of reach.  Written four years before his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, this work is spun tightly around sisters Sofia and Maria Celia who are fighting the diminishing effect of living under house arrest.  Sofia soothes herself by playing a decaying family piano and eavesdropping on her neighbor, while celebrated author Maria Celia pours her soul into letters to her absent husband.  Their country may be playing host to the Pan American Games, but the only sense of movement in their lives comes from their trips to the roof.  An opening is punctured in the crushing claustrophobia when the dashing Lieutenant Portuondo begins romantically pursuing Maria Celia; a relationship that offers both promises and threats.

The production currently being streamed by New Normal Rep springs to life in minute one when the silence of the opening credits is shattered by the entrance of two officers searching the sisters’ abode.  Despite limited physical action, the timing of the actors gives the drama a strong beating pulse throughout the two hours.  The opening interrogation sets the scene as well as the pace.  We can see the stained and browning walls and the once-grand furnishings beautifully rendered by Vanessa Corrente.  Like the previous NNR production, the Zoom backgrounds are designed to look contiguous making the staging appear more cohesive than many online offerings.  Bumper shots of Cuba pop splashes of color into the somberness.  Music by Sancho & Morin — both original songs and classical pieces — provide a wistful soundtrack for old memories and developing stories.

Florencia Lozano, Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega in NNR’s Two Sisters and a Piano

While the Russians may be receding from Cuba in the plot, their influence is ever present on stage.  The similarity between this work and that of Anton Chekhov is clear in both the emotional tides experienced by the characters and the poetry of the language they employ.  Also serving as director, Mr. Cruz enhances this flavor, developing a particularly strong chemistry between his two actresses.  He choreographs the luminous Florencia Lozano in the graceful and carefully considered gestures of the cerebral Maria Celia and brings forth a widening ripple of menace from deep inside a smoldering Jimmy Smits as Portuondo.  Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role of Sofia in 1999 at the Public Theater, repeats her performance, but this time her hair bows and childish mannerisms ultimately take on an uncomfortable Baby Jane quality.  Her strongest scene is with the charmingly awkward piano tuner played by Gary Perez as he tries to reverse the results of the instrument’s neglect as well as that of its owner.

Our collective desire to break free from our homes and a desperation for connection gives Two Sisters and a Piano an air of relatability at this precarious time.  It is available to stream on demand from the New Normal Rep website for $25 ($10 for students and theater professionals) through May 23.

Inside The Wild Heart on Gather.Town

When she died in her mid-fifties, prominent Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector left behind a body of work that defies classification.  Her breakthrough novel, Near the Wild Heart, had made her a literary star in her twenties. On the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday Group Dot BR, a New York based Brazilian theater company, has “re-stage” their interactive piece Inside the Wild Heart, inspired by the writer’s oeuvre.  Originally performed in a 19th Century three story Gramercy Park studio, the production has been transported to gather.town, an online platform that enables participants to navigate through a defined space.  (More on the software later.)  Upon entry, audience members are assigned an avatar which they can move through a model of the studio with their arrow keys.  When they approach an interactive element, they can engage with it by pressing the letter X and disengage by doing the same, creating a personalized experience.

Dominating the event is a filmed version of the 2018 production adapted for the stage by Andressa Furletti and Debora Balardini and directed by Linda Wise The streaming version runs simultaneously on all floors represented in the gather.town “house” just as it did live.  The rooms were obviously small and crowded with audience members perched on the furniture and stairways.  This results in awkward camera angles and poor sound quality further muffled by Sergio Krakowski discordant score performed by violinist Mario Forte.  The script — like Lispector’s novels — is more about feeling than narrative and it is possible to sense the underlying emotions and wild shifts in tone despite the technical limitations.  The expressive cast includes Debora Balardini, Mirko Faienza, Patricia Faolli, Andressa Furletti, Fabiana Mattedi, Gio Mielle, Gonçalo Ruivo, Yasmin Santana, Ibsen Santos, and Montserrat Vargas.  Vargas’s and Furletti’s production design such as the flowered wallpaper with eyes and a globe lamp used to see the future manages to shine through.  

A scene from Inside the Wild Heart filmed in 2018, a segment of Inside the Wild Heart on gather.town

More successful are the other ten stops along the journey.  There are stills of complex art installations, pages of a book to read, and participatory areas where audience members can write or draw.  A photograph of telephones hanging off the hook is accompanied by the reading of poetry as is a film of waves crashing on the beach.  But by far the most powerful segment is a video interview of Lispector herself conducted shortly before her death.  She was in near-constant pain from an accident several years earlier and seems to float between frustration and pride.  The unseen host skillfully elicits extraordinary answers from an author who bristles at comparison and doesn’t have much use for praise either.

While Group Dot BR is to be commended for matching their vision with a platform more easily tailored to their original “choose your own adventure” concept than Zoom would have been, gather.town may prove to be a barrier for attracting audience members who are not comfortable with technology.  It only runs on Google Chrome and Foxfire by Mozilla. Being able to view Inside the Wild Heart requires two entries.  If Chrome or Foxfire isn’t your default browser, you will have to copy the URL from your “magic link” generated by picking up your virtual reservation and paste it into a new tab.  Navigating using the arrow keys is slow and somewhat clumsy.  Chasing a character up a flight of stairs is difficult enough that you will likely miss their entrance into the next room.  You can make movement a little easier by operating in “ghost mode” so you can go through rather than around the other audience members.  However, their presence in a space with you will block a section of what you are trying to see, the effect being similar to having a revolving group of tall people sitting in front of you in the theater.  There is a bar area in which you can turn on your camera and microphone in order to interact with other people, but no one was ever there when I visited.  

For fans of Lispector, Inside the Wild Heart presents a unique opportunity to step inside and roam around her work.  And while there are issues, there is also appeal here for those who miss the unique sensation of performance art not possible in the static universe of Zoom.  All elements are available in Portuguese and English.  Since you will always be missing something, you can have multiple experiences if you choose to return.  Performances continue through Sunday, December 20, with showtimes Thursday through Sunday 7PM ET (21 hours Brazil, 1AM Europe) and Saturday and Sunday at 1PM ET (15 hours Brazil, 7PM Europe).  Be aware there are scenes involving partial nudity.  Tickets for all performances are $20-$50 and are available at Group.BR.com

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.