Commentary: Theaters nobly fill the COVID void, but screens make me miss the stage even more

By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Zoom theater is an oxymoron, but substitutes for live performance will have to do until we can safely gather again as an audience.

The Old Vic's In Camera program demonstrates what can be done with an actor on stage alone or physically distanced from a scene partner. The offerings, scratch productions with topnotch performers, recall Peter Brook's idea of theater as "the empty space," the stage equivalent of a blank page, requiring nothing more than the imaginative interplay between artists and (implied) spectators.

But what about more adventurous digital performances? My encounters thus far don't persuade me that the future of theater lies in sophisticated tech.

When I tune into a play or a devised theater piece, I'm not looking to be dazzled by computer graphics. Clever Zoom backdrops don't seize my imagination. I want what I always want from the stage: a confrontation with what it means to be human.

That was not at all my experience with "Portaleza," a piece by David Israel Reynoso and the immersive theater company Optika Moderna in La Jolla Playhouse's digital Without Walls series (available through Oct. 31). A package was mailed to my home with a "hypnocular device" that I had to fold together myself. (For someone who quakes in terror at the words "special assembly required," this was not an auspicious start.)

To access this mysterious portal, I had to scan a code with my phone, then (after some instructional confusion) email a message to a dead loved one that would be coded by an Optika Moderna optician for cosmic delivery. The message I scrolled wasn't to a dead loved one but to the artists behind this cumbersome exercise: "This is manipulative and exploitative."


Eventually my misshapen hypnocular device came into play so that I could experience "a surreal vision" of my "message's passage through the hands of celestial and mortal beings." Part video game, part music video, the piece was surreal all right. But missing for me was anything resembling a theatrical vision.

I was eager to see how Pig Iron, the inventive Philadelphia-based theater company, would translate its experimental sensibility on Zoom. But the lesson from "Zero Cost House," a semi-autobiographical play written for Pig Iron by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, is that the digital space, while open to new configurations, can handle only so much dramatic complexity.

The play, which the company performed onstage in 2012, has been adapted to a new medium. The fit doesn't feel natural. Adapted and directed by Dan Rothenberg and translated by Aya Ogawa, this online incarnation of "Zero Cost House" is unwieldy, slow to take off and only intermittently arresting.

The characters include a Toshiki Okada from 15 years earlier when he fell under the spell of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and a Toshiki Okada who has grown disenchanted with the book and its classic American inquiry into nature and society and freedom and responsibility. The actors circulate parts, lending identity an even more slippery reality in a work that offers no more incentive to follow along than a stranger's dream.


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