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BWW Review: A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL & (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER at The Public Theater

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Connect intimately with strangers through phone lines and plexiglass

BWW Review: A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL & (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER at The Public Theater
600 HIGHWAYMEN's A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter at The Public Theater, running through August 15. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

It's my first time back at The Public Theater since late February of 2020. I'm rushing to get there and running a bit late, but I know they won't start the show without me. They can't because I'm exactly one half of the show.

I have many memories of The Public Theater's lobby as a bustling place where you're sure to run into someone you know entering or exiting one of the theaters or Joe's Pub, drink in hand. But the mood was solemn and quiet as less than a handful of visible staff members greeted and guided me to a stage I'd seen shows performed on multiple times per year.

The lights were low except for a dim illumination on the set -- two chairs and a table divided by clear plexiglass with a small rectangle cut in the middle and a stack of cards. There wasn't a single person in the darkened audience, but I had a feeling I was being watched. Perhaps by the show's creators? Maybe the ghosts of the theater's past?

BWW Review: A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL & (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER at The Public Theater
600 HIGHWAYMEN's A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter at The Public Theater, running through August 15. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

After a few moments in silence alone, a fashionably dressed young man walked onto the stage, set down his backpack, and looked at me through the plexiglass. Guided by the arrows on the cards placed between us, we followed the instructions. And with the arrival of my scene partner, as much a stranger to me as I am to him, A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter begins.

(Part Two): An Encounter is the evolution of A Thousand Ways (Part One: A Phone Call) by the innovative and emotionally intelligent experimental theater company 600 Highwayman, the brainchild of theatermakers Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone.

I participated and reviewed (Part One: A Phone Call) as part of the Public's Under the Radar Festival in January this year. A return engagement of (Part One: A Phone Call) is currently running through July 18 and is an integral part of the whole vision of the creators.

Both (Part One: A Phone Call) and (Part Two): An Encounter are deeply intimate, emotionally stirring experiences. One has to partake in them directly to understand the feelings that arise from connecting in such a personal yet detached way with a stranger after those formerly common occurrences became loaded with fear.

In (Part One: A Phone Call) you and another participant are connected on the phone from the safety and comfort of your respective homes by a facilitator with a robotic voice who asks questions and prompts the pair of unknowns to reveal themselves through details and stories both personal and innocuous.

An interesting side effect of not seeing the other person is that through a sort of sensory deprivation, other faculties are awakened, especially the imagination. Judgments or preconceived notions from visual cues are also absent.

BWW Review: A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL & (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER at The Public Theater
600 HIGHWAYMEN's A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter at The Public Theater, running through August 15. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

(Part Two): An Encounter opened another Pandora's Box of emotional reactions I wasn't expecting. Because you can see the other person, assumptions can be made. My scene partner was Asian, stylish, looks 20-something, wears glasses, and a wedding band. But our faces were covered, so though there was intense eye contact and laughter at times, something vital was missing.

In the same way that (Part One: A Phone Call) ends abruptly with an automated "goodbye," leaving one feeling hung up on after they had shared such an intimate experience with a new person, (Part Two): An Encounter ends with one person getting up and walking out. Both leave a prominent mark because you aren't a passive observer but an active and invested participant who's been made to reveal themselves.

Perhaps that's the genius of Abby and Michael's 600 Highwaymen's vision and execution of A Thousand Ways (Part One: A Phone Call) and (Part Two): An Encounter. They capture the mixed emotions and evolving experience of living in a world still affected by a deadly global pandemic, including the feelings of isolation and fear it's fostered.

Parts of the world, the U.S., and New York City are opening up rapidly, and packed restaurants, parks, and streets with maskless faces could trick you into thinking this is all behind us. In reality, a sense of fear, dread, and worry lingers alongside a deep desire to put the pain past us and connect again personally with loved ones and strangers alike.

In 600 Highwaymen's A Thousand Ways (Part One: A Phone Call) and (Part Two): An Encounter, you and a stranger are the show. Through a series of seemingly impersonal questions with an unknown person, these intimate encounters force you to examine your emotions and how connections, or lack thereof, during this time have affected you.

For those who are sick of a flattened existence through zoom or want to break free of their bubble, A Thousand Ways (Part One: A Phone Call) and (Part Two): An Encounter are both unmissable experiences.

BWW Review: A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL & (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER at The Public Theater
600 HIGHWAYMEN's A Thousand Ways (Part Two): An Encounter at The Public Theater, running through August 15. Photo credit: Maria Baranova

A THOUSAND WAYS (PART ONE): A PHONE CALL runs from Thursday, May 20 through Sunday, July 18. A THOUSAND WAYS (PART TWO): AN ENCOUNTER runs Tuesday, June 8 through Sunday, August 15. Tickets and a full performance schedule can be found at publictheater.org.


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