When you’re used to seeing at least three or four shows a week at the theater, adjusting to online content is a challenge. Over the last few days, there have been mini-uproars around whether critics should even be writing reviews of online shows. Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, took the Tribune’s Chris Jones to task on Facebook when the latter reviewed Second City’s new created-in-quarantine Improv House Party, writing, “It’s a modestly amusing diversion, no more than that, and it needs a lot of work.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post also caught heat for his reviews of online productions.
What are the rules now? Should free content get more of a critical pass than paid streaming events? Is there any point to reviewing archival content for a show that closed years ago? Are you reviewing the story or the technology? I’m not sure I have the answers as a critic, and I’m damn sure I’m in no position to be offering prescriptions to artists—or anyone else right now—for how to survive this plague creatively. So consider what I’m providing here as more of a quick overview of a few ways that artists and theater companies are trying to keep the virtual lights on in the quarantine.
Masque of the Red Coronavirus
Black Button Eyes goes all in with creating new material in direct response to COVID-19 by riffing on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” about a group of elites shutting themselves off in a pleasure palace during a plague. The connection makes sense for the company, which has made staging the supernatural its calling card. Here, we have a Trumpian Prince, played by Shane Roberie, toggling between self-pity and self-aggrandizement as he introduces clips from a variety of performers, including burlesque artist Cyn S Tease Ya doing a Salome-esque “Dance of the Seven Gels,” Scott Gryder performing a macabre song (composed by Jonathon Lynch) with a spider puppet, Mikaela Sullivan singing “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” from The Tales of Hoffmann, and Dawn Xiana Moon demonstrating a thrilling fire dance.
As in the original, the rich can’t hide forever, and if your appetite for vengeance is in the red zone, this is the show for you. Black Button Eyes puts the text of the show (including suggestions for how this could be staged in a full theatrical production) on the company website along with the series of videos, creating a combination of a literary and visual experience. blackbuttoneyes.com, free
Play(s) at Home
Connective Theatre Company had to cancel their planned production of Morning in America, based on interviews from people across the political spectrum. They instead solicited submissions about COVID-19 for this virtual play festival and selected eight short pieces, which they rehearsed via Zoom, shot, and edited in 72 hours. They’re broken into three “acts,” all reflecting different aspects of what living in isolation means, and company artistic director Chase Hauser talks to therapist Erich Heintzen about coping mechanisms between the acts.
The pieces range from the satirical, as in Leah Huskey’s Coronavirus: The Game Show, in which Huskey’s contestant keeps giving “take another nap” as the correct answer, to the meditative: Kathleen Cahill’s monologue, Being Here Now, illustrates how FOMO feels even more oppressive in quarantine, as Tehilla Newman’s Valerie laments missing her chance to see the brightly hued elegant trogon hummingbird on a social-distancing nature walk. Anxiety about the financial future comes through in Mary Athena’s Clown, as a woman who lost her job during the shutdown submits to having cream pies shoved in her face for money.
Heintzen provides reassuring perspectives along the way for theatermakers and viewers. “This [shutdown] might give you an opportunity to do things you’ve been wanting to do,” he says, adding “but it’s also important to acknowledge that we may not get to everything that we wanted to. And that’s OK, too.” The company is soliciting scripts through April 20 for their next offering, Play(s) at Home: a Green Theatre Festival. connectivetheatrecompany.com, free
Consider this limited-time streaming performance a reverse commute of sorts, since most of us came to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s nameless character through bingeing both seasons of Fleabag on Amazon Prime. But until April 24, you can watch this recording from last year, in which Waller-Bridge reprises the 2013 one-woman stage show that started it all.
Fair warning: there are some even darker moments in the stage version that didn’t make it to the series. But though created long before we were all spending too much time with ourselves, Fleabag still speaks to the age of isolation and the desire for connection, no matter how fleeting or seemingly sordid it might be. Waller-Bridge’s quicksilver ability to switch from one character to another feels like a welcome throwback to great solo work of decades past from the likes of John Leguizamo or Lily Tomlin. When Joe, the cockney regular at the “guinea pig cafe” asks Waller-Bridge’s proprietor, “When will people realize that people are all we got?,” it lands with extra emotional oomph. sohotheatreondemand.com, $5 (proceeds benefit COVID-19 relief efforts)
The Happiest Place on Earth
Another previously recorded solo show hits the livestream from Sideshow Theatre Company, which offers Philip Dawkins’s 2016 Jeff Award–winning piece about how, in the aftermath of his grandfather’s premature (on-air) death in New Mexico, his grandmother, mother, and aunts took a trip to Disneyland. Dawkins presents the story, recorded through a single fixed video camera at the back of the Greenhouse Theater, as a pseudolecture. Using an old-fashioned overhead projector to highlight photos and documents, he entwines his family’s story in startling ways with the bogus vision of America, or what he calls “the national fantasy,” dreamed up by Walt Disney.
Throughout the show, Dawkins introduces all the parks within the park at Disneyland with snippets of what was said at the official opening, from the anti–Native American sentiments in Frontierland to the misogynist comments about women drivers in Tomorrowland. The isolated world of merriment at Disneyland has its own echoes of “The Masque of the Red Death.” But thankfully, the women in Dawkins’s family found a way to escape by embracing the reality that “nothing is promised, and no one lives happily ever after.” sideshowtheatre.org, pay what you wish v