Dramaturgical Doubles and Distractions

A once quarantined setup, courtesy of Joshua William Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin’s Theatre in Quarantine. Upstage, a specially made “closet.”

The first draft of this blog comes minutes after leaving a demonstration by Theatre in Quarantine, a two-person company that just completed a residency at the University of Maryland thanks to the Maya Brin Institute for New Performance. Theatre in Quarantine (TiQ) has been earning plenty of press during this pandemic for a series of innovative performances that started beaming to the world from a closet—specifically Joshua William Gelb’s closet in New York. Gelb and collaborator Katie Rose McLaughlin compose the pieces using a combination of video editing, motion capture, and good old-fashioned theatricality. The results are streamed live: Gelb performs in real time, while the video effects (everything from changing the orientation of the all-white closet space to masking it with previously shot footage) are all synchronized accordingly. Each piece is a feat of alchemy that, as the creators will attest, can sometimes fail but often succeeds.

Up until this point, audiences could only watch TiQ from the comfort of their own homes. Last week, however, I and a few other lucky souls got to be the first to watch them performance in person. Not that they traded YouTube for a proscenium: instead, a few of us crowded into the department’s light lab and sat in seats behind a series of monitors and cameras turned onto a specially built “closet.” As we watched, Gelb set the stream going, stepped past the monitors, cameras, and lights, and began to perform. In front of us was Gelb working in the closet as if exploring it for the first time: pressing one side and the next, hopping up and down, lifting and stretching to see how far he could climb, huffing and sweating throughout. On the screen, the closet tipped from side to side, fell over, and even shot from one end to the other—all in sync with Gelb. In the middle was a monitor running Isadora, software that, with the help of an Xbox Kinect, maps a series of pre-programmed prompts onto Gelb’s body, cueing the video effects one by one. The results were truly awesome: on the one hand, a vibrant show of an actor’s unvarnished skill; on the other, the “finished” product mediated by a feat of performance-friendly computer engineering. As I said to my colleagues afterwards, it was like having someone show us how they do a magic trick. (Keep an eye out for the video, complete with talkback, archived on HowlRound.)

Throughout the show, I became fascinated with the interplay between Gelb’s physical body and cinematic body. I recalled something I had heard about great puppet performers: that their expressions are grafted onto the faces of their puppets in the eyes of the audience. There was something similar here in that the effort Gelb applied to his performance—the sweat, the sound, the kinetic energy—was grafted onto the video by association. In a way, the two become fused, to the point that when I saw the show again, this time only through video, I felt like I was missing something. As it happens, that interplay is something that very much interests Gelb and McLaughlin and could potentially shape their next ventures. What kind of dramaturgical possibilities come out of that simultaneity? What sort of stories can we tell when audiences are able to pick their perspective or, better yet, look into that middle space and hold the two in tension? Ironically, it’s a kind of doubling act that might only really be possible in person—which is not to say that the two halves alone can’t satisfy viewers in their own way. This is another way that theatre could, with the right labor arrangements, learn from sports: yes, millions watch on TV, but there are still thousands happy to pay for the privilege of being there.

Still, there’s that space in the overlap between physical space and screen that could be something special. I think back a lot on the Zoom production of The Wolves “staged” by Philadelphia Theatre Company and how it significantly changed the way I experienced the play—in a way that, say, a filmed version of an in-person production would not have (hit me up for a PDF of my review in Theatre Journal). In my (albeit limited) experience with digital theatre, the really interesting work is that which shifts the spectator, whether by changing their relationship to a play or quite literally offering them different perspectives simultaneously. These are the kinds of experiences I will be looking out for as digital performance continues to evolve.

A Bobbie of a Different Sort

After Stephen Sondheim passed, I introduced my girlfriend to the original cast recording of Company, a personal favorite, on a long car ride. As I wrote in a previous post, the show hits differently when you’re in a committed relationship as opposed to when you are a perpetual third wheel, like the show’s main character. It also hits differently when a woman is cast in that role instead of a man, as in the ongoing Broadway production helmed by Marianne Elliot and starring Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. On the surface, it’s a perfectly straightforward change, barring some necessary adjustments to lines and lyrics. Instead of a Bobby who is beloved by all his couple friends and who perpetually strings along eligible women, you now have a Bobbie doing effectively the same thing with eligible men. Again, though, some things just hit differently. For example, Bobby’s married women friends take a very serious interest in getting him a mate, a quality that reads as tender and motherly in a sort of benign way. When Bobbie’s married male friends do the same thing—in this case, intruding on Bobbie’s imagination while she’s in the middle of getting oral sex—it feels a little perverse and a tad patriarchal.

Of course, staging has an important role to play in that moment, and for all its many qualities, the staging of this Company often undid its best intentions. For starters, the very large (and largely excellent) cast was asked to make a few too many mass entrances and exits—not easy to do discretely, especially on a stage already dominated by boxy rooms representing various apartment spaces around the city. Lenk, meanwhile, who sang the role brilliantly but had a habit of joking in a deranged-sounding voice that maybe should have been directed out of her, was made to bumble from box to box and the occasional open space in between. This effect, along with other characters criss-crossing through her realities, seemed to cast Bobbie in something of a fever dream. In other words, her 35th birthday, a monument made very obvious by large balloons and the number “35” not so discreetly placed throughout the various set pieces, has left Bobbie literally disoriented. While I tend to love dreamlike sequences, the rules of this dream were ill-defined, leaving the protagonist and the production a little messy.

That Bobbie came off as a bit of a mess is unfortunate because it is, sadly, an obvious choice. Granted, not quite so obvious as the crying baby and ticking clock motif (symbolizing, you know, THE BIOLOGICAL CLOCK), a motif that, coupled with Bobbie’s constant bewilderment and habit of drunkenly staring at her phone, suggest she has arrived at this point, unwed and childless, because she can’t get her shit together. This is different from Bobby the man, who typically comes off as a kind of aloof playboy/cipher who just can’t commit. To shape Bobbie the woman in this way is to cast her both within the familiar trope of the “hot mess” and make her a victim of forces seemingly beyond her control, and not in a way that clearly delineates a feminist commentary on the social pressures to couple up and reproduce. This Bobbie just can’t seem to help herself, bless her heart, and that, to me, distracts from the central tension between desire for companionship and fear of losing one’s sense of self that makes this show so special.

(There was still a lot to love about this production. The singing was excellent, Matt Doyle nailed “(Not) Getting Married Today,” I enjoyed Christopher Fitzgerald’s shtick, Jennifer Simard filled in for Patti Lupone nicely, and Claybourne Elder made for an absolute tier-one himbo as Andy, the hot pilot.)

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