Below is the video of the Reverb Theater Arts Festival, viewable until Thursday, May 20. It is close-captioned. For separate videos that provide ASL interpretation and audio description of the festival offerings, click here
It was only after I had finished watching Reverb, a virtual festival presenting 24 theater pieces, all created by artists with disabilities, that I realized how best to appreciate this 150-minute video, alternately exasperating and fascinating; baffling and beguiling. Reverb is most constructively viewed not as a finished product but as part of a process. I found almost half of these scenes and monologues and mini-musicals promising enough that I hope the process with them continues.
Supported by Roundabout Theater Company in partnership with some half dozen non-profit organizations* with a track record of creating theater by and for people with disabilities, the process began with submissions from around the country using the prompt “Connection.” The selected artists, reflecting a wide diversity of disabilities, were then each paired with an established “collaborating artist” such as Scott Ellis, Ali Stroker and Lauren Ridloff, and assigned professional casts, including such starry Broadway veterans as Nikki James, Crystal Dickinson and Gideon Glick.
The resulting works struck me as belonging to several categories, with some overlap.
There are the pieces to which the average theatergoer might react: “How nice that they’re getting a chance to express themselves!”
Then there are the entries in the festival that are clearly excerpts of longer works on which the artist has been working for a while. Among these that I’d most like to see further developed are Magda Romanska’s “The Life and Times of Stephen Hawking,” a complex and eerily magnetic offering that includes scenes of cryptic dialogue between A.A. Brenner and Gregg Mozgala as Hawking and Mephistopheles in front of an enlarged black and white chessboard that seems deliberate homage to early Ingmar Bergman, and another scene of silhouettes of people in wheelchairs being pushed in front of a backdrop of Seurat’s painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, with a woman repeating the upbeat sentences that people with disabilities hear all the time — ‘You’re such an inspiration” — rending it with so many obnoxious variations that it becomes both comic and pointed. By contrast, Cuquis Robledo’s “Cuban Revolutionary Romance,” is a relatively simple scene of budding young love (in which Robledo co-stars), but unmistakably part of a larger story – unmistakable because its end screen contains the words “To be continued. Will Gisela and Eduardo’s love endure as the Cuban Revolution begins? Find out in May, 2021 at www.cuquisrobledostudios.com” (and I plan to.)
Robledo’s excerpt is one of about half the entries in the festival that are not about disability issues, nor do many even explicitly identify any characters as disabled (although in some cases it’s self-evident.)
Others wear their disability lightly. “Like Usual” is another potential budding romance, a mini-musical written by Shane W. Dittmar. Dittmar co-stars as Tanner, who goes on a virtual date with Lilly (Natalie Myrick)
“Can you see me ok?” Tanner asks.
“You look great,” Lilly says.
“You do too…I bet.”
“Wait , are you…Can you not…?”
“They say that love is blind”
“I thought that was a joke”
This is all set to music.
In another mini-musical, Makena Metz’s “Listen to Me,” Jessica (Lyn Ventimiglia) explains in song to her good friend Ryan (Jordan Schneider) why she is not capable at the moment of driving him to a party. “I can’t do spur of the moment plans.”
As in the Stephen Hawking play, Ryan response is hilariously misguided and pointed:
”I am listening. You said you don’t feel good right?
Well, there’s a few solutions.
Have you thought about going on a cleanse?
Or opening your chakras with the crystal lens
You should ferment cabbages or soak in peaches
I’m not a doctor but I can see
Your symptoms aren’t so standard on WebMD
Have you thought about exercise or trying leeches?….
Don’t misunderstand. It’s not all light. There are some intense scenes in Reverb, among them an excerpt from Caity-Shea Violette’s “Reap the Grove,” and also Evan T Cummings’ “Emergency Planning,” both plays about a dying woman and her spouse; and Garrett Zuercher’s “Hard Places,” about a deaf alcoholic furious at his rehab counselor for assigning him a female interpreter. (Although the acting is terrific, at times these plays feel too intense given the handful of minutes they’re allotted.)
The character’s disability isn’t specifically identified in “Listen to Me” or in several other of the pieces. It is in “Nocturne, from Not Me,” which co-stars Glick, who has been public about his having had Microtia, a condition in which you are born with an undeveloped external ear. This clever, intricate semi-musical co-stars its writer, Lance Horne , who also had the condition, and a third character portrayed by Brandon Kazen-Maddox, an ASL interpreter, so that the piece becomes in part about the nature of communication and…connection – the prompt for the entire festival.
Although only maybe six minutes long, “Nocturne…” is the sort of sophisticated work of theater that made me feel ambivalent about the Reverb festival. On the one hand, it’s great that the Roundabout et al are making all these artists’ work accessible to the public (including members of the public with disabilities.) On the other hand, why are these greatly disparate pieces shoved together in one event, 150 minutes at one sitting? Is the Roundabout committing to including work by disabled artists in the course of their regular season – and will they be providing closed caption, sign interpretation and audio description in all their offerings, online and onstage, from this point forward?
But let me stop with that. The effort behind Reverb, made all the more challenging during the pandemic, is well-meaning and should be praised. I should, indeed, take some guidance from the anagrams that the production presented in-between the pieces of the Reverb. They changed around the letters of the word “reactive” so that it spelled “creative” and “condemnation” became (with a little artistic license) “connection made.”
*Presented by Roundabout and
- Arts for All Abilities Consortium
- CO/LAB Theater Group
- DreamStreet Theatre Company
- EPIC Players
- Hands On