With so many theaters opening their doors again for live performances (we have at least a half-dozen new reviews coming up next week, which is the most we’ve run since March 2020), it might be easy to overlook the ongoing digital drama produced by local companies. But there are still plenty of online shows to watch or listen to, so I decided to forego behind-the-scenes news for this week’s column and focus on talking about some virtual options for October.
Steppenwolf will have a big fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 2 for their new arts and education center, and they’re picking up where they left off with live performances by bringing back Tracy Letts’s Bug on November 11, directed by David Cromer and starring Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood as a pair of lovers in a seedy motel whose paranoia about outside dangers drives them further into a folie à deux. (The show was running when the stay-at-home order hit.)
But meantime, you can get a mini-Letts fix through October 24 with a trio of short digital plays by the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning author of August: Osage County. Running less than an hour altogether, all three pieces offer piquant glimpses of loss, aging, and acceptance.
In Night Safari, directed by Patrick Zakem, Rainn Wilson plays the docent on a tram going through a nature preserve whose descriptions of the wildlife on display take on increasingly bitter tones, particularly as he relates them to his own failed relationship with Rhonda in the gift shop. Filmed in black-and-white against a cinderblock wall, with occasional juxtapositions of still photos of the animals in question and other archival illustrations, it’s a taxonomy of middle-aged white male resentment.
In describing the paradoxical frog, a South American amphibian whose tadpole form is much larger than its eventual adult self, Wilson’s guide ruminates, “Imagine that the journey from life to death was a gradual diminishing, dwarfed by nature and competition, rendered obsolete by comparison. Isn’t that what life at night is all about?”
It’s not just life at night, either. In The Old Country (also directed by Zakem), two old men—only one of whom appears to still be compos mentis—eat at a diner and reminisce about the old Russian waitresses who used to work there, before young college students took over the service sector. As they talk (usually past each other), it’s apparent that they’re preparing to shuffle off the mortal coil, although with differing levels of self-awareness.
The characters are portrayed through richly detailed puppets created by Grace Needlman, who also designed the production’s cunning claymation-style environment. Letts’s tale has a distinct echo of David Mamet’s early play, The Duck Variations, in which two geezers sit on a bench exploring friendship and death, among other topics, by way of talking about ducks. That echo may also have something to do with the fact that early Mamet muse Mike Nussbaum stars as the more addled of the two in Letts’s play (William Petersen voices the other). “I can’t remember the last time I died in the old country,” Nussbaum’s old man cries out. “I have no recollection. And it’s wrong to expect that of me.” Petersen’s character laconically observes, “The truth is, you live long enough and you get it. You see. It’s just the way of things. There’s a principle, right? A scientific principle why everything turns to shit.
Letts himself appears in the final piece: The Stretch, a monologue directed by former Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, in which a middle-aged racetrack announcer for the “El Dorado Stakes” does the play-by-play for a race in which the horses refuse to stop running once they cross the wire the first time. With names like “A Horse Called Man,” “Hold My Beer,” and “My Enormous Ego,” the anthropomorphization is apparent, especially when we hear that the latter has “stumbled badly and taken a tremendous fall.” Yes, My Enormous Ego ultimately needs to be destroyed so that the other peo . . . er, horses can finally release themselves of their attachment to earthly desires for dominance.
Three Plays by Tracy Letts and Kingdom
Three Plays by Tracy Letts, streaming through 10/24 (single tickets only sold through 10/15), steppenwolf.org, $20 ($10 students, artists, and essential workers).
Kingdom, streaming through 10/24, brokennosetheatre.com, pay what you can.
Aging men are also at the center of Kingdom, an audio drama produced by Broken Nose Theatre—the first of two the company’s offering this fall. Michael Allen Harris’s play got a live premiere with Broken Nose in 2018; the audio version, directed by Manny Buckley, features two of the actors from that production (Watson Swift as Henry and RjW Mays as Phaedra).
The elderly Black men at the heart of Harris’s story are Arthur (Darren Jones) and Henry, longtime lovers living just outside “The Magic Kingdom” of Orlando’s Walt Disney World. It’s January of 2015, and same-sex marriage is finally legal. But that doesn’t mean their world has become more tolerant: racism and homophobia have hounded them out of the assisted living facility they shared just as Henry’s cancer diagnosis turns terminal. Now they’re living with their lesbian niece, Phaedra, and their gay son, Alexander (Ben F. Locke)—both of whom have had issues with substance abuse in the past. When Alexander finds out Malik (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II), his longtime lover and a rising pro football player who broke up with Alexander once he joined the Jacksonville Jaguars, is engaged to a woman, it sends him into a tailspin.
The 90 minutes of Kingdom cover a lot of volatile territory about the intersection of race and sexuality, a situation that Harris’s script nods to when Locke’s Alexander says, “I feel like I’m stuck in an E. Lynn Harris novel.” (The late writer specialized in portraits of Black men conflicted about their sexual identity.) Phaedra says of her white Lithuanian girlfriend, “She got Black-adjacent struggles, so we connect.” Meantime, Henry harbors decades-old guilt about Arthur’s late wife (Alexander’s mother) that keeps him from accepting Arthur’s marriage proposal.
The dialogue snaps and the action moves well in this radio drama, aided by Eric Backus’s sound design, which creates smooth transitions between scenes. Harris isn’t interested in creating simple dichotomies when dissecting the intersections of race, sexuality, age, and gender. Arthur and Henry, for example, recognize the racism threaded through some of Disney’s most popular creations. (At one point, they complain about the theme park casting a Cuban woman to portray Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, rather than a MENA actor.) But they still find the fantasia offered by Disney an oasis and a respite from their increasingly fraught daily lives.
Harris certainly isn’t tackling happier issues than those faced by Letts’s aging white men. His characters have real-life traumas beyond being jilted by the gift-shop clerk, for example. But his family drama complements the achingly funny existential ponderings in the latter’s digital vignettes. Taken together, they’re well suited for the season of shorter days and ghostly nights.
Other digital offerings that look intriguing, with a spooky seasonal twist (this column is called Ghost Light, after all): Eclectic Full Contact Theatre’s podcast network features what artistic director Andrew Pond describes as “four series and one anthology,” including their ongoing noir homage to 1930s Chicago, Throwing Shade. Strawdog Theatre presents a Halloween-season comedy-horror series on YouTube, Monster, through October 31. And Dragonfly Theatre Company presents a Zoom play, Ghosts of Whitechapel by Kate Black-Spence (October 15-31), in which Jack the Ripper’s victims come together to resist the sensationalized exploitative narratives about their deaths and the slanderous assumptions made about their lives. Happy October!