Given that so much of the art of acting is all about reacting in the moment, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival cast to perform live in “King Lear” this summer.
Not only is the stalwart ensemble working without the benefit of an audience, but the actors cannot see each other—only hear each other. They are acting in isolation, in their own homes, against digital backgrounds, for the entire three-hour length of Shakespeare’s deeply moving tragedy. Somehow, the company’s tech master, Neal Ormond, assembles the characters in ways that occasionally approximate actual physical contact. The actors, following pre-set marks, seem to group together at times, even appearing to look directly at one another.
But they’re not.
It’s an amazing feat, a way of using gaming-type technology that inevitably has its deficiencies. Sometimes actors are not exactly focusing on each other’s eyes. Noses tend to disappear in profile. Audio levels vary. People standing supposedly right next to each other are mismatched in size, or oddly positioned. The actors’ physicality sometimes looks awkward or unnatural, and people’s outlines, as seen on a TV screen, are blurry. This is not, after all, hi-def.
Still, it’s an interesting experiment, and, as directed by Elizabeth Carter and set in a fraught, modern-day America (interspersed with newscasts about Black Lives Matter), retains much of the power of this play in which a monarch unwisely and prematurely divides his kingdom between two conniving daughters, rejecting his beloved and honest youngest, Cordelia.
This is a racially mixed and partly gender-mixed cast. Jessica Powell as King Lear—she’s presented as a mother, not a father—is an excellent choice. There’s something so primal about the mother-daughter bond, and Powell is impressively “every inch a king.” Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Melissa Ortiz as the despicable daughters Goneril and Regan are particularly strong, as is Cassidy Brown’s warm-hearted, at times even jocular Earl of Kent, Ron Chapman’s smooth-faced bastard Edmund and Yohana Ansari-Thomas’s Edgar, especially in his guise as Poor Tom.
Some of this “Lear” works quite well: soliloquies and asides delivered directly to the camera (especially Edmund’s); dazzling and detailed backgrounds (by Ormond); the bloody gouging of the Duke of Gloucester’s eyes (“Out, vile jelly!”); and, in general, the Bard’s painful tale of a monarch who, in this rendition, admits to being “a sad and foolish old woman,” undone by (her) own hubris.
“King Lear” streams live on YouTube, for free, through Sept. 27 at https://www.youtube.com/user/SFShakes/featured.
Back to the more ubiquitous Zoom performances: Shotgun Players’ production of Eliza Clark’s “Quack” is so Zoomable that early on in the two-hour play I barely registered that I was watching heads in squares instead of bodies onstage.
It’s also an excellent choice in other ways.
When the play opens, Dr. Irving Baer (David Boyll), a popular TV doctor who gives advice on health, is in big, career-destroying trouble. Although not an anti-vaxxer himself—and not an expert on vaccines, as he’s an endocrinologist — he’s encouraged mothers, on his show, to make their own decisions. According to an extensive magazine article by a journalist (Leigh Rondon-Davis), as a result several children died of a measles outbreak.
That seemingly simple plot point gets more and more layered and complex as the play continues, involving Baer’s overly devoted nurse-assistant (Joyce Domanico-Huh), his shrill and ambitious wife (Hilary Hesse) and the head of an anti-feminist men’s rights movement (Chris Ginesi).
The swift-moving piece, skillfully directed by Brady Brophy-Hilton, is both satirical and unnerving. Every character is believably contradictory, unpredictable, utterly human—no villains or heroes here. The playwright delves into many contemporary issues—sexism, misogyny, discrimination, fat-shaming and more—vaccines being only the tip of the iceberg. True, sometimes it seems like too many issues, some of them crying out for further development.
But Shotgun’s excellent cast explores every nugget of comedy and drama in this bottomless treasure chest of a play.
Livestream performances are at 7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 15 on a pay-what-you-can basis; and available on demand Aug. 19-26. Visit shotgunplayers.org.
For something completely different, check out producer-director-actor-drag queen D’Arcy Drollinger’s Oasis TV. Surprisingly, videos of past shows at the SOMA nightclub the Oasis, which are spoofs of TV sitcoms and series from the past, work almost as well on screen as they do on site.
For example, an episode of “Three’s Company” called “The Rivals”— featuring the considerable comic talents of director Drollinger as dim-witted platinum-blonde Chrissy in short-shorts and tight T-shirt; Michael Phillis and Heklina as her two roommates Jack and Janet; and the ever-droll Matthew Martin as the horny upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Roper, in a curly wig and mumu with Marine Layer as her husband—is so deliciously full of sexual innuendos, lascivious gestures and double-entendres, and the live audience so joyfully responsive to every naughty nuance, that it’s almost like being there in person. You needn’t have ever watched the late-’70s/early ’80s show (I haven’t) to enjoy the fun. Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irxrv7i1Df0.
Situated in between the intensity of “Lear” and “Quack” and, at the other extreme, the wackiness of “Rivals,” is local actor Laura Jane Bailey’s “The Paris Effect,” a Streaming Theatre production. Conflating her experience of a traumatic medical event in Paris with her lifelong amour for the city of light itself, she has concocted a fanciful and engaging little solo show. So while she describes the disturbing event in realistic detail, she interweaves a sort of fairy tale in which Paris is personified.
To do so, she veers mainly between two characters: herself, the quintessential good girl, at various stages of her life, and—especially delightful—Paris in the guise of a blasé française, seen onscreen in profile and in black and white, complete with authentic accent and world-weary langueur, urging the wide-eyed American tourist to explore her passions fully.
Developed with and directed by David Ford, “The Paris Effect” works quite well onscreen, maybe even, being physically static, better than it would onstage. Bailey’s an appealing storyteller and her tale, although a bit too hokey at times, enchanted this Francophile. See it at https://www.twitch.tv/thestreamingtheatre .