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STREAMING THEATER REVIEW Masque of the Red Coronavirus
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-04-06

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Playwright: Ed Rutherford

At: Black Button Eyes Productions online at BlackButtonEyes.com/masque-of-the-red-coronavirus. Tickets: Online donations accepted. Runs through: Open run*

It was easy to forget, last month, that playhouses in London were once shuttered for EIGHTEEN YEARS! You heard that correctly—from 1642 to 1660, all performances of plays were declared illegal, punishable by a hefty fine. Not only did theater survive this cultural drought, however, but in doing so, introduced a number of artistic innovations—among them, casting actual women in female roles—aimed at luring customers back.

Tasked with generating theatrical fizz in seclusion for another four weeks, Chicago artists have likewise implemented an array of hitherto-unexplored performance techniques complying with current public-health restrictions: quasi-televised live-stream taped shows, "Storyboard" picture-books and a hybrid approach, dubbed by its creators, "Enhanced Text" offering curious theatergoers an opportunity to share in stage directions and light/sound cues, just like the pros.

Our story is based on a neogothic tale by Edgar Allan Poe that recounts an arrogant prince's attempt to escape the contagion known as the "Red Death"—a fictional malady characterized by sharp pains, dizziness, spontaneous hemorrhages and swift death. To this purpose, he has sequestered himself and his favored courtiers in a luxurious retreat where they continue their customary revels, oblivious to the suffering of their fellow citizens, as they wait for the danger to pass.

The preface to Ed Rutherford's update of this morality fable notes that many of the Prince's speeches are quoted verbatim from "a public figure" so we are not surprised to detect an unmistakable ( but, as played by Shane Roberie, not overstated ) resemblance to a certain national spokesperson evidenced in the talking-head-of-state wearing a cheap paper crown as he speaks from his video screen—which the script scrolling on the Black Button Eyes website instructs us to imagine is mounted on a robot easel and shows his royal highness flanked by a private physician and a sexy woman "who is not his wife."

The remainder of the story is conveyed in similar fashion: written text is illustrated by short videos of selected scenes featuring solo actors. These mostly depict the entertainments chosen by our host for the amusement of his guests—among them, an erotic dance involving faux antiseptic ointments, a lover's lament from a romantic-era opera and a grotesque ditty warbled by a puppet tarantula. We are also occasionally interrupted by hackers apprising us of ominous developments occurring outside our bunker. Additional scenic context, special effects or stage picture configuration are entirely up to us.

Far from emerging as reductive, though, the diversity of talent required to achieve connection and continuity within a performance dynamic generated in literal isolation—did I mention Kat Evans' choral poetry, Dawn Xiana Moon's torch dance and Walter Bezt's Beardsley-inspired graphic design?—make for a multi-disciplinary collage of a complexity extending well beyond the physical limitations and budgets of live presentation. Never more than when corporeal distance demands spiritual proximity has the pact between actor and audience been more manifestly invoked, from the pre-curtain speech inviting our participation in this world premiere production, right up to the jubilant electro-house musical finale exhorting us to join in a celebratory dance—wherever we may be.


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