I have to hand it to the Pandemic Players of Baltimore for making virtual lemonade out of the Covid-19 lemon. I sat in the comfort of my home recently and enjoyed their production of Luigi Pirandello’s quirky drama “Six Character in Search of Author” – complete with changes in scenery, character interaction, and all the intrigue of seeing a play live on a physical stage.
What a world we live in! The Pandemic Players have found a new and exciting way to maintain the immediacy of live theatre even as we live with the isolation brought on by the Coronavirus.
First of all, who are the Pandemic Players? I will let them tell you, as quoted from their information on their YouTube channel: “While theaters are closed, Pandemic Players will be producing streamed productions, free to the public, to fill a need for live theater. We will do so free of charge, and will collect donations, 100% to support local Baltimore-area theatres affected by the shutdown.”
The Pandemic Players have found a new & exciting way to maintain the immediacy of live theatre even as we live with the isolation brought on by the Coronavirus
Last week, Fells Point Corner Theatre was the beneficiary of any voluntary donations during the presentation. As of today, there have been four previous Pandemic productions, starting with George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” followed by Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” J.M. Barrie’s “Dear Brutus,” and Shakespeare’s magical comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
You might notice a pattern: these are all older classics, available in most cases in the public domain (depending on translations and editions used by the theatre). At any rate, these are all wonderful, literate plays that lend themselves to the parameters of presenting the titles as – I can’t believe I am typing these words! – chat rooms. Creatively using the Zoom application, the Pandemic Players are incorporating design elements and strong acting choices all the while following recommended isolation guidelines. In other words, as director Stephen Deininger stated prior to the opening of “Six Characters,” the actors and crew of the play were never in the same room at the same time physically; they rehearsed and presented their work only via Zoom. Remarkable is the word that comes to mind. But this just proves that theatre artists are among the most creative and their desire to keep the art form alive in these isolated times is something to be celebrated and supported.
So how was the production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author?” In a word, fascinating. With clearly delineated characters, Deininger’s actors made very clear choices, with only their heads and voice as a means to convey their character.
Strindberg’s most famous work starts in the here and now, with a modern theatre rehearsing another Strindberg play; the manager putting her actors through their paces, not unlike a business meeting using video-chat technology. Just as if it were being staged on a normal stage, a group of strangers wanders on to the screen. The invaders are archetypal characters, lost, it seems, without a complete story to tell. As trippy as it sounds – and it is! – the concept of these six characters who need to feel complete by “living” in a drama, onstage anywhere, was innovative for the 1920s (when it premiered), blurring the lines between reality and artifice. Now those lines are even blurrier, using video-conferencing as both a medium with which to present the work but as a conceptual hook.
Director Deininger’s creative use of the Zoom application helps to keep the “real” people – the acting company attempting to rehearse – from the “characters,” identified only by their type: Father, mother, step-daughter, son, a boy and a small child. (Full disclosure: the boy and small child are only represented by avatars, i.e. pictorial representations of characters, but they do move about the virtual stage as needed, even if neither one speaks.) When the outside characters are finally allowed to become players in the new story, blending with the “real” actors, the design elements of changing scenery are represented by wonderful renditions of the inside of a brothel or a lovely garden.
The director’s eye for casting is evident in the strong performances his actors were able to muster in Zoom. Kay-Megan Washington led the “real” characters as the no-nonsense stage manager who orchestrates the rehearsal and confronts the new characters with withering patience. Her actors, trying in vain to rehearse, include the leading lady (Nancy Linden), leading man (Tor Tonnesson), ingenue (Samantha Jednorski), juvenile (Michael Safko), and crew members played by Kristi Valleau, as the prompter, and as “every other person working in the theater,” Tommy Peters.
As the emotionally charged and lost off-of-the-page characters, Matt Leyendecker makes a valuable contribution as the Father, the spokesperson of the group. With his powerful and expressive voice, Leydendecker turns in the most theatrically-charged performance among the company. He is ably supported by the flirtatious and saucy step-daughter as played memorably by Emily Holmstock. The mother is played with fragility by Stephanie Ranno. The older and callow son is brought to life by Jake Schwartz. Rounding out the cast with a memorable turn and vivid Italian accent is Robin Schwartz as Madame Pace, a character who is indelibly connected to the others.
The live-streamed performance was not without a couple of bumps, but that is the nature of live theatre. I wondered why there was an unlit prop cigarette being used by one character briefly. And when the “staging” (I use the conventional term) included heads turning to speak to another character, it reminded me a bit of the opening of the venerable television show “The Brady Bunch” where the siblings swivel their heads around to “see” the other Bradys or housekeeper, Alice. I found the head movements a little distracting but these moments did not deter from my overall enjoyment and admiration of the presentation as a whole.
Following Strindberg last Saturday night, next on the virtual bill is a little Ibsen, namely “A Doll’s House,” ready for live-streaming Saturday, April 25 at 7 pm. To catch it, go to YouTube and simply type Pandemic Players into the search box and then find “Pandemic Players present ‘A Doll’s House’.” You can enter the waiting room or even set an alert to be notified when the live-streamed play performance is about to begin. If you can’t catch Ibsen’s landmark drama during the live-stream, never fear. All previous Pandemic Players productions remain on their YouTube channel.
Advisory: Upcoming Pandemic Players productions include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Adding Machine,” and “The Trojan Women.” Other titles will be announced in the future.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.
“Six Character in Search of an Author,” produced as a live-stream by the Pandemic Players of Baltimore, is available for free on the theatre’s YouTube page, along with their previous streamed plays. Tax-deductible donations can be made to each theater through production-specific fundraisers on the Pandemic Players Facebook page.