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The Fourth Wall Is My Laptop Screen


I wanted to climb right through the screen into a seat a few rows from the stage.

It was a visceral impulse, not a rational one. It paid no heed to impossibility, or even recent memory — the feeling of unease that nagged in the last days before the theaters shut down, when from avidity and habit we kept packing the houses, breathing communal air.

That was a scant two weeks ago, but it feels eons longer since we’ve learned to keep a cautious social distance. For now we seek our drama fixes online, trying to fill the empty space left by the temporary absence of the empty spaces.

So a couple of recent evenings lately have found me peering into my laptop, watching plays that were digitally immortalized before the coronavirus thwarted their respective opening nights, and the runs that would have followed.

Both Ren Dara Santiago’s “The Siblings Play,” a world premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York, and Mike Lew’s “Teenage Dick,” a Chicago premiere at Theater Wit, are available for ticketed streaming — a scrappily defiant, even noble insistence on the part of producers that the artists’ work on their small stages not simply disappear.

It is heartening that these recordings are there, and that the companies can earn some box office from them. But if you watch, you may arrive as I did at the conviction that you have not truly seen the plays.

That’s not the fault of the shows; it’s a function of experiencing them through the filter of a medium they weren’t constructed for.

Glowing at me through my screen, they felt flattened and far away — and, oh, how they made me wish I were in the room to sense all of their dimensions. Recordings of stage productions are frustrating by nature, pale relics of theater rather than theater itself.

I hesitate to say that, because it is a brutal truth, and don’t we all have enough of those in this strange pandemic time? The upside is the forceful argument these videos inadvertently make for the live experience — for the undiminished necessity of coming together in person to see a story unfold.

All the clichés about actors and audience as a single organism, about each performance being different from the one the night before: You feel in your bones the truth of them, watching a show that asks nothing of you because it has already taken place.

Directed by Jenna Worsham for Rattlestick and Piece by Piece Productions, “The Siblings Play” comes off the better of the two — partly because it is staged proscenium-style, while Brian Balcom’s alley-style configuration for “Teenage Dick” put the live audience on either side, making it trickier to film.

Set in Harlem, “The Siblings Play” is a drama about a family whose gritty dysfunction and just-scraping-by existence place them solidly in the tradition of Lucy Thurber, whose Hill Town Plays cycle was seen in part at Rattlestick, and who mentored Santiago during the development of “Siblings” in the Cherry Lane Theater’s Mentor Project three years ago.

The 17-year-old Marie (Cindy De La Cruz); her big brother Leon (Ed Ventura); and their baby brother, 13-year-old Marian (Mateo Ferro), are a tight group with a squabbling affection for one another. It’s an alliance forged by the undependability of their parents, Lenora (Dalia Davi) and Logan (Andy Lucien), whose fractious chaos leaves the teenagers to fend for themselves.

This is a play shaped by trauma, but on video its shifts into nightmares and flashbacks don’t read properly, so the emotional tenor of the piece is off. Some of the trouble is simply the way that stage lighting can come across on video, stark or cheap or washed-out even if it’s impeccably done. In those moments, it feels like watching a translation in the wrong language.

The magnetic Ferro, who is 18, is the main reason to see the recording nonetheless. In his hands, the science-minded, tennis-playing Marian is the linchpin of the family — swaggeringly irreverent, endearingly funny, but vulnerable, too, in the way that kids can be when they’re just starting to shed the chrysalis of childhood.

Angelica Borrero’s apartment set is also excellent; bonus points for the clever way she incorporates Rattlestick’s upstage proscenium into the structure of the family’s home.

If “Teenage Dick” fares less well, it’s not for lack of spirit. Where Rattlestick offers an unadorned online experience, Theater Wit bookends its screenings with a warm preshow tour of the building (oh, look, we’re told: There’s the lobby bar, which would be open if not for the pandemic) and a pitch for donations over a farewell drink with the cast. All of that is recorded. Then, if you like, you can join a live post-show videoconference chat.

The idea propelling all this is connection, yet the performance itself feels awfully remote. That’s not, however, the fault of the actors in Lew’s riff on “Richard III,” whose Richard Gloucester (MacGregor Arney) isn’t Shakespeare’s ruthless duke, but rather a high school junior with cerebral palsy and a similar aptitude for scheming.

In the room, surely, the experience was different. The spectators there could see, for example, the side wall where, I’m almost certain, quite a few tweets were projected. And when Richard danced with the graceful Anne Margaret (Courtney Rikki Green), that audience had a view of the actors’ full bodies, which the camera repeatedly cuts off. That matters in a play that is so much about the way Richard is perceived for his physicality, and how it makes him perceive himself.

Such framing is a shortcoming built into even the best of videotaped theater — the high-polish offerings of National Theater Live, the considerable catalog of the Wooster Group, the invaluable trove that is the New York Public Library’s Theater on Film and Tape Archive. When theater is put on camera, the camera’s eye controls our gaze.

As the 24 Hour Plays’ “Viral Monologues” have proved, that can work splendidly — when the theater is made with the camera in mind. But videotaped shows created for the stage are artifacts, really, and as such maybe more valuable to history than to the present.

When all this is past, these fresh additions will remain as evidence — reminders of what the theater went through, and what we yearned for from a distance when we weren’t allowed to gather.

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