The seven new plays presented this year in Red Bull’s annual festival are odd hybrids that mimic the past, reflect our strange present, and suggest the future, perhaps inadvertently posing the question: Will Zoom, and Zoom theater, outlast the pandemic?
In “The Misanthrope Breaks his Quarantine,” the first of the short plays in the livestream recording, which is available only through July 16, playwright Charlotte Rahn-Lee uses characters from Moliere’s 17th century comedy “The Misanthrope” and has them speaking in rhyming couplets, but they are wealthy New Yorkers on a Zoom call in 2023. They are Zooming because Alceste (Nathan Winkelstein) refuses to leave his apartment:
“I can’t afford to risk contracting Covid,
Even if the fear of it’s outmoded.”
His love interest Cellimene (Sheria Irving) is calling in from a gala at the Met
“this party’s truly all abloom
with things you simply cannot do on Zoom.”
In a note, the playwright states the obvious, that her play “is intended to be presented over Zoom,” and then adds an intriguing parenthetical remark: “(This play COULD be produced in person, but the set would need to imitate a Zoom call.)” But the playwright and director Margaret Bordelon take advantage of the platform in ways that would probably not work as well on stage: At one point, Alceste takes over the Zoom hosting, and renames Cellimene’s label “The Heartless Woman” and his friend Philinte (Anthony Michael Lopez) “the Idiot With Words.”
None of the six other plays are explicitly set on Zoom calls, but all of them are Zoom productions. At the same time, all but one borrow characters, plots, and especially language from the “classics,” and riff on the theme of “restoration,” which was the prompt given by Red Bull, the 18-year-old Off-Broadway company whose mission is “revitalizing the classics for today’s audience.”
“Restoration” is a clever choice, since it’s a word that describes the process towards normality that one hopes will take place in the near future, but also refers to the Restoration comedies, the 17th century British comedies of manners that Red Bull has favored over the years.
Playwright David Lefkowitz takes both meanings the most to heart, with his “Restoration Playhouse,” a comedy of manners (again using rhyming couplets) that dramatizes the efforts of a small Off Off Broadway theater company to reopen. The artistic director Dori Fopler and stage manager Millamore (Franchelle Dorn and Anthony Lopez) must deal with a landlord with the on-the-nose (and lewd) name of Avarice Fucquhar (Winkelstein again), a critic named Pontifica Dronesounder (Sara Koviak), and a wealthy widow donor named Opular Prospuss (Marjorie Johnson.)
Dori and Millamore are glad that “Governor Cuomo, at his conference of press/ Made note of theater’s great distress” and announced they could reopen. But Dori cautions:
“I fear that when details of this reprieve have been unpacked
They may not up to be what they are cracked.”
To which Millamore replies:
“You scare me with this sudden note of gloom
I can’t endure another month of Zoom!”
I can imagine viewers sitting before their screens laughing, or at least nodding, but endure it we have.
If they’re all on Zoom, the works selected for the festival exhibit a wide-ranging concept of what constitutes a classic, making for an eclectic evening.
“Jewel,” its playwright and star Abigail C. Onwunali tells us, was inspired by Wole Soyinka’s 1959 play, “The Lion and the Jewel.” It tells a story that feels almost like a Grimm fairy tale – in its archetypical characters and its cruelty — of an African woman who apparently had paid to be smuggled into America, but is now in effect kept captured by Ebube (Reggie D. White) who is in thrall to her beauty.
George LaVigne’s “The Wolf Tree” adds a folkloric element to his dramatization of the historical figure John Reynolds, aka Captain Pouch, who led a popular uprising in England in 1607. Here Captain Pouch (Reggie White again) hides in a tree and encounters a simple shepherdess (Sara Koviak again.)
Similarly, Constance Congdon uses a chapter from English history and injects it with some surreal elements from Greek mythology (if you prefer “classic mythology.” The history is of special interest to theatergoers – Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare dismantled their theater to avoid paying their landlord, and shipped the wood across the Thames to build a new theater, which they called The Globe.
In “Echo,” Rosslyn Cornejo gives an interesting racial twist to the classic Greek myth (enhanced by Ovid) of Echo and Narcissus – in which Echo (Onwunali again) learns to love her own brown body.
The festival ends with “Lunar,” Jose Rivera’s play about five teenagers s in the middle of an outdoor basketball court in Brooklyn gazing up at the clouds waiting for them to part in order to view the beauty of a lunar eclipse. I can’t tell you the connection this play has to the classics, or even to the prompt restoration – and I doubt Red Bull could either – but the connection to the present feels palpable. Here are actors in Zoom theater, waiting for the clouds to clear.