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BWW Review: WOMEN BEHIND THE CURTAIN by Asian American Theatre Artists Of Boston


BWW Review: WOMEN BEHIND THE CURTAIN by Asian American Theatre Artists Of Boston

If Women Behind the Curtain were ever to be performed on stage, I could see it going one of two ways. The first way calls to mind the sweeping Small Island (adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel of the same name by Andrea Levy) which The National Theatre offered as one of its free streaming options last month. The story spans the duration of World War II and takes us to locales ranging from a one-room schoolhouse in Jamaica to a dilapidated manor house amidst the rubble of London. Though the production makes use of its government subsidy, employing the revolving platforms in the Olivier along with cycloramic projections and a massive ensemble, my takeaway from the experience was ultimately, "This should've just been a movie." The other way I could see Women Behind the Curtain playing out as a piece of live theatre harkens back to Fresh Ink Theatre's recent production of David Valdes' The Last Catastrophist. Sans projections, revolving stages, and government subsidy, that February evening was droningly uninventive, and the lackluster dialogue made me think, "This should've just been a movie." These three plays (Women Behind the Curtain, Small Island, and The Last Catastrophist) share more than just a number of settings that could make Thomas Schumacher double check the bottom line. Amidst shifting couplings of characters exchanging Oscar/ Felix viewpoints, they all rely consistently on two cinematic devices to hold the audiences' attention; spectacle-- a hurricane, a river of lava, a Russian propagandist thrown to his death from the top of a building-- and plot twists.

We can concede that a plot twist is a challenge to execute on stage. (We must collectively cut Agatha Christie some slack because a lot of her clichéd reveals only became clichés after she wrote them.) The traditional separation of audience from performer is expanded beyond that of audience from their laptop screen, which often requires the subject matter to equivalently expand. (Thus Euripides needed to have Medea kill her children to initiate catharsis in his audiences while The Days of Our Lives got away with having Marlena simply fake a few deaths on Melaswen Island.)

In Women Behind the Curtain, Michael Lin weaves a narrative about a French spy, Renee, on a mission in Cold War Moscow. When a suspiciously-invested secretary, Aleksandra, joins her in her covert travels, the two are set on an action-packed journey through mistrusted informants, double agents, and scenarios that raise questions about the trustworthiness of the other. Unlike Edmundson or Valdes, Lin did not set out to write a play. Instead, he scripted a radio drama. The Asian American Theatre Artists of Boston were smart to produce this piece among their Zoom offerings, as a piece of theatre. I did not find myself wishing I was watching this on stage, I did not find myself feeling that this would work better as a movie. This piece fit this presentation style from the beginning 'til the end. Here's why it worked and what other theaters should be noting:

First off, I logged into a presentation already in progress. A clean graphic rested on the screen telling me I was in the right place and listing the names of the cast and creative team while crackly cabaret music foggily danced about my room. As I was not sitting in a darkened theatre, but rather in my own apartment with a bowl of soup on my lap, I appreciated this clean, presentable invitation into the world of the piece.

Producer Sarah Shin smilingly introduced the evening with a scripted announcement. I'm sure she too was in her home, but she prepared her spiel as though it mattered and withheld any of the now-standard cutesy, smarmy, sarcastic Zoom-isms that we need to abandon altogether. This is still a piece of theatre, a narrative. She said what was necessary, and was gone.

Immediately, Lin threw us into a world of action. With barely any exposition (not much more needed than flashing the Soviet flag), we meet our main characters and boom. Someone is already dead.

There was a delicate balance in presenting this subject matter in this all-too-often haphazard medium. French spies and KGB agents saddle the fence between interesting characters and cheap murder mystery party impressions. The cast uniformly embraced both sides of the coin, helmed by Lisa Nguyen as the soft-spoken French femme fatale, Renee, equally capable of defeating the men she encounters with her words or her guns. In staunch opposition, Christina Mei Chen was frenzied and frequently flabbergasted by her new partner as the bespectacled secretary Aleksandra. Jude Torres switched through multiple roles with an impressive Russian accent and evidently-supported resonance, while Quentin Nguyen-Duy gave us an English ally as charming- if as cold-hearted- as James Bond.

These characters all worked (despite variations in outcomes of attempted accents) because they felt simultaneously serious and silly. Ensemble members Ankur Singh and Vivian Liu-Somers stole the show early on as two Russian civilians asked to aid a harried KGB officer in tracking down a suspected assassin. In one of the few technical glitches of the evening, a microphone stopped working and Vivian Liu-Somers (with an ushanka snuggly around her ears and a digital hammer and sickle behind her) leaned forward and shouted, "I can't hear you, comrade," adding to the comedy of the bumbling civilians' predicament. Zoom theatre is exactly the place we can forgive the idea that a new hat signifies a new character, and few have boasted such versatile hats in Zoom theatre as Vivian Liu-Somers and Ankur Singh.

Director Michelle Aguillon takes ardent advantage of the tried-and-true Zoom theatre tricks (passing a prop from one screen to another) and poses excellent solutions to specific problems posed by the script. Bram Xu's sound design becomes integral in the simple ways Aguillon has staged combat- armed and unarmed- on a virtual platform. Without a single stage direction read, the narrative is straight-forward and easy to follow.

The narrative itself is not entirely inventive, perhaps relying on a few too many villainous soliloquies and a few too-predictable revelations, but overall takes the audience through a turbulent shift in alliances. What the piece gloriously lacks in exposition, it unfortunately makes up for by explaining itself ad nauseam in conclusion. After intermission, the action slowed down considerably, and the ending itself was a hair too derivative of Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain to feel rewarding and fresh.

Overall, the success of the piece (outside of its tight, hour run time-- no more Zoom Shakespeare readings, I beg) lies in its subject matter. I feel that too many theaters are turning to realism or character-driven storylines as appropriate virtual fodder, when, actually we would do better to look to the home entertainment we relied on historically from fireside stories to radio shows. Spies, assassins, double agents, and fun hats can keep us engaged regardless of platform.

Check out more of AATAB's upcoming online offerings here.

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