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BWW Review: VIRTUAL LIVING ART EVENT at Westchester Collaborative Theater: 7 Playwrights Paint Pictures With Words

Has 'Zoom Theater' Hit a Wall, or Is there Room for Improvement?

BWW Review: VIRTUAL LIVING ART EVENT at Westchester Collaborative Theater: 7 Playwrights Paint Pictures With Words
Torian Brackett delivers a passionate take on the emotional contradictions of marriage in Pat O'Neill's claustrophobic "The View from My Room."
Photo credit: Melissa Nocera.

If there's anybody more antsy than theater-goers impatient for the return of live, in-person performances, it's theater-makers.

That's a post-pandemic stage we haven't quite reached yet, but we can take hope and heart that it's getting so close now, we almost can feel "the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd," to invoke an idiosyncratic 1960s Broadway musical from the singularly talented Anthony Newley.

To paraphrase one of the signature songs from that show, until the proverbial curtain again rises to reveal actors in the flesh, "Who can we turn to?"

The answer is resourceful, community-centered theater companies like Westchester Collaborative Theatre (WCT; Ossining, N.Y.) and Axial Theatre (Pleasantville, N.Y.).

Of course, as long as we must Zoom in to take in a performative work, geographic locations are of no moment. A more apt description in the prevailing climate of physical long-distancing might be to dislocate those theater troupes in a place named Virtual, N.Y. -- or, better yet, for the sake of specificity, Zoom, U.S.A.

That's where a lot of theater has repaired to these days, the ether of cyberspace, in lieu of the black box or proscenium.

Theater may be viewed on a video streaming service like YouTube, but in many cases, it's being produced via the flash-mob app that is Zoom. It presents an assortment of challenges, not only for the creative teams, but for viewers (and reviewers), who need to adjust to a new spatial dynamic, so as not to judge the results by conventional standards -- because they cannot hope to compete with the theater experience as we normally know it -- and want it.

Even the vernacular of the new technology is not fully comfortable (or understandable) to live-theater natives. WCT inadvertently mis-labels its YouTube presentation as "live streamed," even though all the pieces are pre-recorded. "Live streamed" means the performance is taking place in real time, like a live sporting event.

To keep everything clear, the productions described here are pre-recorded streams, not live streams.

Axial's one-act festival, themed "March Madness," premieres March 19 with the first of two flights of short plays, totaling 13 pieces. Program A runs through March 25 with seven pieces. Program B runs March 26-April 1. Each $20 ticket entitles the purchaser to watch all 13 short plays. For more information, go to axialtheatre.org. March Madness is co-produced by Axial Artistic Director Catherine {"Cat") Banks and by Virginia Reynolds.

For years, Axial has mounted every February a very popular one-act festival under the banner "Twisted Valentines." Extenuating circumstances this year caused the show to move online and to move back a month, with a seasonal re-branding, hence "March Madness."

With its Living Art Event, which ran March 6 and 13, with performances remaining on March 20 and March 27 at 8 p.m., Westchester Collaborative Theater took on an ambitious re-imagining of an already ambitious project it produces every year. The current 2021 production brings to fore the same short plays that were selected for presentation a year ago, before being pandemic-stricken.

Nineteen artworks by members of Ossining Arts Council (OAC) on exhibit at Ossining Public Library were viewed by WCT playwrights, who were invited to choose one from which to draw inspiration for a short play, which is submitted to a committee for consideration, with seven finalists chosen.

In the current video production, a docent appears onscreen before each play begins, to comment on several of the art works. That's a nice touch that adds a unique dimension to the typical one-act festival template. A caveat is that it could be clearer which one of the works described in each interstitial art segment inspired the play that follows. It's ostensibly the last work mentioned before the play begins, but that correlation is not explicitly stated. It's just a logical inference.

Also, a playlist program, as a handy point of reference, would have been welcome. The program is attached to the confirmation email sent to ticket purchasers by similar virtual theater events, such as the currently ongoing Aery 20/20 One-Act Play Festival, hosted by Putnam County's Depot Theatre in Garrison's Landing (N.Y.).

The WCT selection committee did a commendable job of curating a varied mix of material.

The Living Art Event opens and ends with a pair of whimsical pieces. Schuyler Bishop's "A Pair of Pears" (Roberta Robinson, Michael Meth) extracts some sweet juice from a couple sparring over the sensuality of fruit.

Peter Andrews's "Glad Rags" has fun pitting stylistically polar art foundation doyennes (Roberta Robinson, Enid Breis) against each other, culminating in a colorfully choreographed, full-cast curtain call that is Zoomified to the nines.

In between, the other five Living Art pieces take deep dives into fraught familial relationships -- including one literal deep dive.

In "The Bronze Lining," Tara Meddaugh explores old wounds between two sisters (Amy Lowenthal, Lorraine Federico) who are catching up while hiking.

Elaine Hartel plumbs the dark dungeons of teen angst in "Being Fifteen," featuring Joanna Fernandez and Ava Purcel as avatars of alienation from dysfunctional homes. Ms. Purcel's authenticity and palpable sense of isolation make a sobering impression.

Torian Brackett's passionate performance vividly captures the emotional complexity and contradictions of married life in Pat O'Neill's claustrophobic "The View from My Room." In this case, Zoom adds value by virtue of a simulated trompe l'oeil backdrop that acts virtually as another character.

With "To Have Normal," accomplished playwright Evelyn Mertens again demonstrates a sure hand in credibly assuming the personas of disparate characters. Her captivating depictions of middle-class traumas add up to so much more than middling dramas. Here, 13-year-old Hayley (Sasha Murray) and her not-yet-30 dad (Dante DeLeo) have ashen-faced family business to consummate involving a departed mother.

In Carol Mark's outstanding "Hey, Dad," Rob Ansbro pulls off an affecting and chameleon-like trifecta as three characters. In addition to sculptor Joe, Jr., he voices an aunt and his deceased father, a veteran firefighter of larger-than-life stature.

This elegant jewel by the always-on-the-mark Ms. Mark reminds us 1) monologues work better than two-handers on Zoom, and 2) solid storytelling in the hands of a pro, brought to life by committed acting, can overcome the diminution and disruption that Zoom-like technology can wreak on theatrical scale and dramatic continuity.

When two (or more) actors on Zoom are looking at their scene partner on screen, they are not looking in the direction of the other actor, as they would on stage. Awkwardly, the screen becomes their immediate audience, leaving the audience at home feeling like an unwelcome voyeur rather than a valued viewer.

Since the actor is peering at the Zoom screen as if it's a script, to the audience it can feel akin to a staged reading, even if the actor is off-book. Compounding the undesirable effect, if nobody is reading stage directions, certain elements of dramatic context, such as a specific sense of time and place, easily elude audience grasp.

Audio issues also arise with Zoom theater, creating at times uneven sound quality, a largely inevitable outcome when two actors using dissimilar digital devices are in separate ambient environments.

All those are reasons why it is not fair to judge Zoom theater by the singular standards of in-the-room theater. One venue is chilled by contactless, cold technology, the other is sizzling with kinetic body heat.

If it seems I'm going to excessive or even unreasonable lengths to handicap the experience, it's only fair to both the producer and the patron to set expectations, so the paying customer can adjust to the reality of virtual theater, and so the producer can adjust to finding ways to make it more palatable.

What's important are that creative catalysts like Westchester Collaborative Theater are not allowing the pandemic to stop them from giving theater artists a chance to make theater, as we wait in the wings for the pandemic to end its run and finally go dark, so we can come back into the light.

WCT's Living Art Event is resourcefully directed by veteran director/actor/playwright Christopher Arena, whose task was made more daunting by the multiplicity of images to manage, a theatrical version of herding cats. It is co-produced by WCT Executive Director Alan Lutwin and WCT member and actor/director Melissa Nocera.

WCT's 2021 Living Art Event is dedicated to the memory of Joe Albert Lima, longtime WCT playwright/director/actor, who passed away in 2020. Mr. Lima was scheduled to direct the show in 2020. He is a beloved spirit in the Hudson Valley theater community who still looms large, and always will.

General admission tickets are $25; $20 for seniors/students. Discounted tickets are available for OAC/WCT members and groups of five or more. Advance online purchase is strongly recommended: www.wctheater.org or www.ossiningartscouncil.org and EventBrite Tickets, https://2021livingartevent.eventbrite.com


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