The esteemed American playwright Charles L. Mee writes free-form plays that don’t necessarily involve characters per se, or narratives. Rather, his scripts, often presented as fragments of floating thoughts, can be theatricalized in any way that an inventive director sees fit.
In Cutting Ball Theater’s commissioned world premiere “Utopia,” that inventive director Ariel Craft (the company’s artistic director) explores Mee’s themes—the ways that human love and our bond with nature intersect—through a multimedia pastiche that incorporates dance, art and music into a nonlinear sequence of two-person interactions.
The result is playful, funny and joyous.
The actors, necessarily filmed in their own personal spaces, form couples whose dialogue can range from the mysterious and poetic to the mundane. So, for example, a young woman (Sharon Shao) prepares a list of her peccadillos for her sweetheart (Joel Chapman): “If we’re going to be together, I want everything to be clear. … That’s how it is for me.”
Another pair (Gabriel Montoya and Chris Steele) are seen in black and white, film noir style. “I love you like a cicada,” one tells the other.
Indeed, declarations of romantic love can be whimsical, nonsensical: “I could be a haystack in a field for you” or “I’d like to get a peacock for you.”
Two women (Jasmine Milan Williams and Regina Morones) fall in love at first sight. A mother (Michelle Talgarow) and her daughter, Tilly (an adorable Chloe Fong), at a café, bookend the piece; in one delightful scene, Tilly recites, to the waiter (Don Wood), her favorite ice cream flavors, and there are dozens (“rutabaga, rocky roadkill …”).
The couples’ exchanges meander in and out amid colorful, animated art and abstract designs (by members of Creativity Explored, which provides art-making opportunities for people with developmental disabilities) and masked, socially distanced contemporary dance sequences, filmed at natural sites like local beaches, parks and hillsides, performed by RAWdance. (The entire last third or so of the play is devoted to the dancing, choreographed by Katerina Wong, but I’d have preferred more acting).
Mee’s made-for-streaming utopia, masterfully designed by the Cutting Ball team, is an antidote for a time when love must sometimes be about the words we say to each other and the distant images we create, and the actors, physically distanced as they are, imbue each of their little duets with a full sense of intimacy, of the ways that we can still come together.
“Utopia” streams through Nov. 15; tickets are $20-$30 per household; visit cuttingball.com.
Taking an entirely different approach to streaming theater, Mountain View’s Pear Theatre presents a live-filmed adaptation of Greek playwright Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BC.
In the oft-produced comedy, the eponymous Lysistrata organizes the women of Athens to withhold sex from their husbands unless and until they agree to cease the endless Peloponnesian War, which pitted the Greek city-states against one another. “Only we women can save Greece!” she proclaims.
The trouble is, the women are just as horny as their warrior men (“To put it bluntly, they’re dying to get laid,” concedes the stern Lysistrata), which provides opportunity for plenty of raucous and lascivious comedy before the equitable resolution of the (less lethal) war between the sexes.
This is an all-women cast, a fine concept, with most of the actors playing multiple roles, both male and female. It’s set outdoors, partly in what appears to be someone’s backyard, with the cast in a credible suggestion of ancient Greek costumes plus plastic face shields, and everyone maintaining careful social distance.
But there are inevitable obstacles in choosing to present this particular play in this format. For example, it’s hard to make physical comedy work when the actors can’t get physically close, and when there’s no audience laughter to create general merriment.
And Carolyn Balducci’s adaptation, which is pretty by-the-book, mostly eschewing anachronisms, is not especially witty, with lines like “Look here, you brazen hussy.”
Technical challenges include the audio with its constant background roar (probably due to wind through the actors’ mics).
And the cast, understandably hampered by the physical restrictions, is uneven. As the title character, Cynthia Lagodzinski has good, authoritarian stage presence but tends to declaim; her fervor seems measured, lacking authentic passion, under Betsy Kruse Craig’s direction.
But a few particularly brisk, full-bodied comic performances, especially by Treya Dionne Brown and Samantha Ricci, lighten the proceedings and accelerate the otherwise slow pace.
It’s commendable that Pear is aiming for something close to a live production, and hopefully some of the kinks will be worked out over time. The company has a full and interesting season planned.
“Lysistrata” streams through Nov. 15; tickets are $30-$34; visit thepear.org.
Jean Schiffman is a San Francisco freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.