Streaming theater goes beyond Hamilton | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Streaming theater goes beyond Hamilton 

The Public Theater, Black Lives, Black Words, and Hell in a Handbag put it all online.

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click to enlarge Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz in The Line

Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz in The Line

Courtesy Public Theater

In the first days of the COVID-19 shutdown, many theaters scrambled to find archival production videos of high enough quality to warrant public streaming—either for free or for a (relatively) low suggested donation. As the months have dragged on with stages remaining dark, more companies are creating brand-new content for the online stage. Some of it speaks directly to the weird-and-scary-as-hell moment in which we're living. And some of it provides a little respite from that hell—or at least gives us a theatrical handbag to enjoy on the ride down.

A recent New York Times piece on digital theater by Laura Collins-Hughes posited, "theater’s primary public face wears a show-must-go-on smile, so there’s a weird and self-defeating disconnect, as if being supportive means pretending that these works are just as exciting as live stuff would be." The digital realm obviously cannot give us the in-person communal experience of theater at its live and immediate best. But to paraphrase Hedwig, "it's what we've got to work with." And in the hands (and faces) of the right artists, original online work can still be absorbing, enraging, or just plain fun. Even if it's not Hamilton.

The Line 

On Sunday, July 12, New York City health officials reported that, for the first time since March, there were zero deaths from COVID reported. That glimmer of light was in the background as I watched the Public Theater's original digital documentary play, The Line, created by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (directed by Blank) and featuring a cast of heavy hitters: Santino Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan, and Lorraine Toussaint.

Blank and Jensen first got national attention with The Exonerated, their 2000 docu-play about six wrongfully convicted inmates released after new evidence cleared them. For The Line, they interviewed several health-care workers on the front lines in New York City: EMTs, nurses, and doctors. The actors deliver their stories in character through a series of interwoven monologues from their own homes. (The streaming production is free, though the Public suggests donations to the Physician Affiliate Group of New York and Public Health Solutions.)

The arc of the narrative traces the characters' early interest in health care as a profession, to the earliest inklings of what COVID might mean, to the hellscape that New York's hospitals became in a matter of weeks. It's raw, immediate, and personal—a first draft of history from the people who barely had a chance to catch their breath before getting another call for an ambulance or an intubation. 

Woven throughout is anger and despair about whose lives are valued and whose are not. Gupta's Vikram, an ER doc who fights his own battle with COVID and then offers to work at a hospital in the Bronx on the assumption that he now has immunity, focuses on the racial and class disparities of the disease, not just with patients, but with the food delivery workers and the people he sees riding the subway every day. "This whole thing exposed systems," he says. "And the system is flawed from its root."

That system includes woefully inadequate infrastructure and equipment. Pill's Jennifer, a first-year intern whose face carries the discolored indentations created by her PPE, describes improvising when they run out of ventilators by connecting mismatched masks and oxygen lines. "Patients are crashing in front of you, you're just trying to tape this shit to the wall." Ortiz's Oscar, an EMT, recalls bringing one patient back from the brink in his ambulance with CPR, only to see him die waiting for a bed in the hospital ER.

Watching each of these characters deliver their stories in isolation on camera (to an audience that is also isolated) underscores the alienation of the pandemic in a way that putting them together on a stage in front of an audience would not. Pinnock's Dwight, who works in a cancer hospital, recounts the loneliness of both his patients who die alone and their families, while Fontana's actor turned nurse, David, talks about a Zoom shiva for a beloved uncle. And Toussaint's Sharon, a nurse manager at an assisted living facility, comes back after her own bout with COVID to find that half of the residents in her care have died while she was out.

And just as the Disney Plus streaming version of Hamilton lets us see close-ups not possible from the balcony, the intimacy of the camera here captures the shifting and competing emotions  running through all the characters as they fight both a viral enemy and bumbling bureaucracy. 

The Line is neither pure polemic nor poetry. Instead, it asks us to look at the heart of darkness around COVID and reevaluate the everyday heroism of all essential workers. Though Sheridan's Ed, a paramedic, maintains that "'Hero' is a word we use in the face of fear and it separates us from each other," it's hard to find any other way to describe the characters Jensen and Blank present to us. And it's hard not to feel rage and sorrow at the unnecessary loss of life these workers have dealt with for 16-hour shifts every day for months.

Plays for the People

The Black Lives, Black Words International Project kicked off its virtual season (which goes into November) this past weekend with a four-day run of founder Reginald Edmund's Ride Share, directed by cofounder Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway and starring Kamal Angelo Bolden in a live solo Zoom performance. Followers of Edmund's Facebook page might recognize some of the stories of Bolden's Uber driver from Edmund's own tales of his time in the ride-share industry. But Edmund adds increasingly dark elements. These include a spectral "Dark Rider," born out of "ten generations of rage," who reminds Bolden's on-edge Marcus (a newlywed newly laid off from his job of over ten years and with a hefty debt load) that "America always finds a way to kill Black men." It's an auspicious beginning to this series, and one hopes that this piece can be reconfigured or remounted at some point in the future for a longer run, especially if the charismatic Bolden is available to revisit the role. Meantime, future offerings in the festival include Chisa Hutchinson's Proof of Love (July 22-26) and onetime Chicago playwright Idris Goodwin's The Immortal Goats (September 16-20).

The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 4—LOCKDOWN!

The Line and Ride Share offered a glimpse of hell, but leave it to Hell in a Handbag to find the campy side of quarantine. Artistic director David Cerda reimagines the company's long-running (and cheerfully dirty-minded) homage to Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche, and Rose as a Zoom sitcom, directed by Spenser Davis. (Cerda also plays Dorothy.)

It's 1992 and the Girls are in quarantine because "viral vamp" Blanche (Grant Drager) came in contact with Legionnaires Disease at SantaCon. (Her fetish for the Jolly Old Elf was previously examined in one of the holiday-themed Hell in a Handbag Golden Girls pieces.) If you're wondering how they're able to use 21st-century videoconferencing technology, never fear: ditzy Rose (Ed Jones) has a long and exasperating explanation involving her oft-referenced hometown of Saint Olaf and a cow. Jones's Rose also creates a disturbing puppet show featuring her roommates in a "Punch-and-Judy" style scenario (props by Pamela Parker).

Fans of past Handbag GG outings will be happy to see return appearances from Cerda's alternate-universe Miami, such as Danne W. Taylor's Nancy Drew (dissipated partner in geriatric crime to Ryan Oates's dyspeptic Sophia) and Michael Rashid's Esther, the goodhearted Jewish matron. Commercials for "Depend" adult garments (featuring Terry McCarthy as an increasingly snappish June Allyson) and Colonial Pencil life insurance (featuring Robert Williams as a senior-citizen mark and Chazie Bly as the scheming announcer) add Hallmark Channel verisimilitude.

The presentation isn't flashy, though the Zoom backgrounds for each of the characters is cunning. Instead, Davis's direction just lets each of the actors metaphorically go to town, even as they're in lockdown mode. If you need 70 minutes of good-natured fun (and who doesn't these days?), you can thank Hell in a Handbag for being a virtual friend.  v

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