Theater companies throughout the country have struggled to find a way to translate the visceral, in-the-moment experience of live theater into the virtual, socially distanced world of meeting apps such as Zoom.
Heller Theatre Company decided to meet the challenges that Zoom presents — physically remote actors, unavoidable lapses in dialogue because of technological incongruities, the difficulty of creating the illusion of shared space — head on with its annual "Heller Shorts" production.
Now in its 11th year, Heller Shorts is a showcase of original short plays by local writers. Usually writers were given specific prompts and a general theme around which to build their stories. This year, the theme was "Lives in Boxes," and the goal was to tell stories that exploit the creative possibilities of "Zoom theater."
Zoom is, in essence, a presentational tool, and the most successful shows in this year's Heller Shorts production, which was streamed live on Saturday, Oct. 17, were those that embraced this.
Morgan Allen's "The Scam Artist is Present," directed by Anna Puhl, was perhaps the most distilled example — a monologue by an internet "influencer" named Sofia Sage (Paris Burris), who is conducting an online "creativity workshop."
It's a darkly, pointedly funny vignette, and Burris is excellent at capturing the vapid cluelessness and empty self-importance of those who claim their self-absorption should be rewarded because "it's my art."
"Close Encounters" by Bonny Hardgrove and directed by Angela McLaughlin, is a humorous variation on the abducted-by-aliens trope, presented in faux-documentary style, as two residents of a small Alabama town (J'en Thomas and Robert Young) happily regale listeners with their stories about the time the little green men came to town, and a former journalist (Kathleen Hope) describes her mental breakdown. Nash Wayne McQuarters serves as the nominal voice of reason as the scientist introducing these segments.
It was one of the few productions that made a point to have projected backgrounds, to differentiate among the players, which were for the most part effective.
Quinn Blakely's "Every Eye Will See Him," directed by Jeremy Stevens, was another monologue piece, about a fellow (Thomas Hunt) trying to maintain a little bit of sanity in the midst of a coming apocalypse by transmitting the "news" of what has been going on amongst his circle of friends to what he hopes is an eager audience.
The fact that his companions are a collection of battered dolls and stuffed toys is only a little less unnerving than the unseen but unheard moments of violence that punctuate this weekend update.
Equally effective was "Househunter," written by David Blakely and directed by Tabitha Littlefield. The "virtual" house tour, in which potential buyers (Alyssa Brown and James Sayess) take in the streaming video of a most enthusiastic real estate agent (Kaley Jobe), gets a "Blair Witch" twist in this delicate creepy tale, anchored by Jobe's bright-eyed performance.
Littlefield is the client of virtual matchmaker Liz Masters in "It's Just Zoom," written by Donna Latham and directed by Kathryn Harkney. Of the plays that relied the most on interaction among its performers, which included Nick Lutke and Hunt as potential romantic partners who might guide and guard once the "after time" has arrived, this play's reliance on the artifice of Zoom interactions made it work.
"The Devil's in the Details," written by Icarus James and directed by Alyssa Brown, was effective when it was just Littlefield as a woman held virtual prisoner by Timothy Hunter's demon. Perhaps because of the vagaries of internet speeds, Hunter's facial movements and gestures were blurred, which gave his character an uncanny aura — which rapidly dissipated upon the entrance of Susan Apker, whose character serves to bring the story back down to earth.
Least effective was "$tuck," a humorless comedy by Dan Hitzman, directed by Jeffrey Jimenez. It's about three contestants who must keep a hand on a refrigerator to win a wad of cash, and the mind games they play on each other in hopes of winning.
It was the one show that required the energy of sharply paced dialogue, and as much as the cast (Jarrod Kopp, Andy Axewell, Barbara Murn and Andrew Smith tried, the lag time of shifting from one box to the next disrupted any rhythm that might have been established.