How ‘Wolves’ and ‘Heroes’ Are Saving Pandemic Theater

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How ‘Wolves’ and ‘Heroes’ Are Saving Pandemic Theater

It is well and good that some theaters are making money during the pandemic by producing what can only be described as quasi-theater: magic shows, crime novels, a hundred variations of “A Christmas Carol”. I will not congratulate you here. let their income be its own reward. With a little luck, they can keep the spark of the performance alive to light another night.

The theaters I want to recognize now are those that produce plays of artistic value in an environment that is even more hostile to them than usual. It’s a tougher task, but it’s the one that makes the eventual reopening of our stages worth the effort.

These are companies that have focused on meaty classics and serious new jobs, reconfiguring entire seasons for socially distant delivery systems. Check out the latest short films from the Steppenwolf Theater Company, the updated verse comedies from Molière in the Park, and the all-audio cast of seven productions from the Williamstown Theater Festival and Audible.

Between new works and classics, however, lies a particularly vulnerable category: newer pieces that emerged into culture after successful New York debuts when the pandemic restricted their production options. Without a well-known title and with the greatest possible attention to language and ideas, these pieces do not immediately make themselves a quick profit center in an industry that tries to focus on a penny.

So it was encouraging that Maryland-based Olney Theater Center unveiled such an inventive zoom version of “The Humans,” Stephen Karam’s 2015 play about the economic and spiritual upheaval of a family, in early fall. Also encouraging: At the beginning of next year, Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue”, a jazz noir drama that can be seen in the Signature Theater in New York in 2018, will receive the Williamstown Audible treatment, for which it is even better in its intense musicality seems appropriate.

At the moment, however, I’m at the peak of seeing two pieces that I loved for the first time in new formats. One of them is Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, which the Philadelphia Theater Company is offering in an exciting zoom production through December 20th. The other is Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer finalist earlier this year, which runs through December 13th in a devastating film-theater hybrid at the Wilma Theater, also in Philadelphia.

These are not just dramas; There were considerable dramas to be produced. First of all, “The Wolves” has a large cast; It follows nine teenage girls on an indoor soccer team for several months as they literally and figuratively stretch. The expectations for this were also high. Paige Price, the company’s artistic director, said “The Wolves” broke presale records when local Covid-19 regulations forced them to stop production two days before rehearsals began in March.

As Price describes it, a hectic process of figuring out what to do other than “destroy the set” immediately began. After all of that ticket revenue was wiped out, she and director Nell Bang-Jensen had to start over. “Nobody wants to do recorded zoom readings,” Price explained – and “The Wolves” in particular, with its blizzard of cross-cutting conversations, would likely fall deadly flat in this format.

As the summer progressed, the flexibility of the technology also increased. By sending each actor not just their costumes and props (crutches from Amazon!), But also their own sound equipment and green screen kit, the production team was able to vary the frame in each zoom box, which is a huge improvement over the early ones Pandemic experiments is basically neck up and visually as interesting as tic-tac-toe.

On the flip side, production had to be content with smartphone footage that was fully rendered as the theater couldn’t afford to broadcast high-definition cameras – the budget for the show was $ 55,000 instead of the $ 350,000, that may have been spent on the stage. Screen close-ups unusable.

Ultimately, the technical limitations and the handcrafted quality of the images don’t detract from the story. With nine players, the 3-by-3 zoom grid proves to be an extremely expressive element. After all, this is a piece that consists almost entirely of girls who are caught growing up and using their pack identity – the team is called the wolves – as a kind of privacy screen behind which they become individuals. What at first glance looks like a single organ of a single organ turns out to be numerous during the zoom inspection.

The cast is excellent and sums up the jokes no less than the pathos. But what really stands out in this virtual production is the way DeLappe has already designed the audience experience to match that of the girls. We are slow to recognize certain lives within the undifferentiated mass of faces and jerseys. (Amusingly, the jerseys have their numbers facing forward instead of backward for zoom purposes.) As we discover them, they discover themselves.

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is a much more desperate piece that is less about discovery than deepening confusion. In a series of painful confrontations, it tests the moral clarity of its main characters: four young adults connected to a deeply conservative Catholic college in Wyoming. Over the course of one night shortly after a protester was killed in a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, they find they are all grappling with beliefs they can no longer understand.

It would have been an aesthetic monstrosity to pack so much pain and intensity into a zoom grid, a Greek drama on the set of “The Hollywood Squares”. When Wilma’s planned stage production such as “The Wolves” was discontinued, her director Blanka Zizka, who is also one of the company’s four co-artistic directors, decided to recreate “Heroes” as a digital site instead. specific production. For two and a half weeks, the actors and crew were quarantined in five Airbnb accommodations in the Pocono Mountains. The backyard of one of the Airbnb’s was their set; The night was their soundscape, complete with dying crickets that ruined the recordings.

The piece is so tightly written and so specific about its characters that I wasn’t surprised that the finished production, at least initially, accurately reflected Danya Taylor’s original great staging for Playwright’s Horizons.

But very soon, as the camera panned from the scene of four young people drinking and clattering and arguing over faith to a shot of Orion in a massive starry sky, Zizka’s version, the first since Taymors, took on an entirely different aspect at. more cosmic, if less personal, than the original. The virtual experience of a real place – as opposed to what live theater offers you: a real experience of a virtual place – steers the mind towards abstractions.

It works so well too, and Zizka clearly enjoyed the new opportunities that filming offered. Reversed angles and close-ups vary the composition and also provide an opportunity not available in theater to tell a story by partially showing how characters listen. “The theater audience will only see who is speaking,” said Zizka.

The disadvantage? “The theater is not a building, it’s people – actors and audience face each other,” she continued. “But now that the piece is on, it’s lonely. I have no idea what anyone is feeling. “

Well, I know what I felt: shaken once again. And the good news for “Heroes” and “The Wolves” is that such good pandemic productions will rock audiences until they can sit down to face the live theater again.

The Wolves
Available on request until December 20th; philadelphiatheatercompany.org

Heroes of the fourth turn
Available on request until December 13th; wilmatheater.org