Where Are We? Theatrical Adventures in Digital Dislocation

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The lobby of the New Ohio Theater was simultaneously comforting and spooky on a recent evening. Look, it’s the ticket counter! And there’s the concession stand, now with LaCroix water and Purell. Nobody was buying, though: The place was deserted.

I wasn’t actually at the West Village venue, of course, but watching on a screen, from a roaming hand-held camera’s point of view. It was a preshow of sorts to “we need your listening,” a play in this year’s Ice Factory festival, and the audience on Zoom was milling about as light jazz played. It felt strange, and a little sad, because we were there, but not really.

A certain sense of dislocation is an integral part of the festival’s brand of cutting-edge, progressive theater, which makes audiences reconsider their familiar moorings.

Livestreaming adds more layers to this dislocation. Theater, usually anchored by the here and now of physical proximity, has become slippery. We are not sure where the actors actually are, or where they are meant to be.

Watching another Ice Factory 2020 production, the SOCIETY company’s “Beginning Days of True Jubilation,” it took me a while to figure out if characters in any given scene were supposed to be in the same physical space or not. You could not tell that the actors in a third production, “Who’s There?,” were based in the United States, Malaysia and Singapore (remaining performances, though Aug. 8, are at either 10 a.m. or 10 p.m.).

In the case of “we need your listening,” the production that started in the theater’s lobby, the disconnection was often literal, with pesky audio and video glitches hindering stretches of the 30-minute-long webcast. One thing was certain: It was annoying.

Then again, irritation often mixes with the giddiness of discovery for New York theatergoers during summer, traditionally a time for festivals dedicated to new works and emerging artists at Off Off Broadway venues. Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks is AWOL and Ars Nova’s ANT Fest on hiatus, but the 27th edition of Ice Factory went virtual, along with Dixon Place’s Hot Festival in July and the upcoming Corkscrew Theater Festival.

The three Ice Factory shows were indicative of the challenges of trying to test form and function online. “Beginning Days of True Jubilation” and “we need your listening” came across as experimental but would likely have been considerably more conventional in a physical space, while “Who’s There?” is intricately tied to Zoom. (A fourth production, the musical “A Burning Church,” runs Aug. 13-15, but is not open for review.)

Created by Velani Dibba, Ilana Khanin, Elizagrace Madrone and Stephen Charles Smith, in collaboration with the 10-strong ensemble, “we need your listening” squarely falls in the by-now-familiar subgenre of immersive, one-on-one theater. At just over half an hour, the show is made up of micro scenes in which the actors engage with a single viewer at a time. The “we” of the title could have been the actors themselves, or characters; it did not matter because the very concepts of realness and authenticity are inherently fraught when someone is performing for someone else.

A news release billed the scenes as exchanges, which is a stretch since the audience was muted — a wise idea regardless of where theater happens. And even as monologues, the confessions felt distant, as the actors were two screens removed.

Adding to the alienation, actors would suddenly freeze or lose audio. Because of the show’s willfully fragmented nature, I had no idea whether the tech issues were on purpose, maybe as a statement on incommunicability in the pandemic, or if Con Edison was playing deus ex machina (an internet issue turned out to be the cause). It all felt less theatrical than like a catch-up session with solipsistic acquaintances cursed with bad reception. Do we need more of that?

“Beginning Days of True Jubilation” was more traditional, despite being devised experimentally: Following a collaborative method developed by the British company Joint Stock in the early 1970s, the playwright Mona Mansour (“The Way West,” “Urge for Going”) and the director Scott Illingworth shaped into form improvisations by the cast.

The show, which I am now curious to see in person, is about the rise and crash of a start-up called Asphera. The chief executive (Annie Fox) spouts neo-corporate gobbledygook and the youthful employees — they might be in a remake of “Logan’s Run,” the science-fiction film in which people over 30 are killed off — have gulped the Kool-Aid, chanting the mantra “The world is a better place because of us.”

Some of the best scenes involve mosaics of windows showing people doing various activities at the same time, suggesting individualities subsumed by groupthink.

The lack of physicality changed from asset to problem in other scenes, which were difficult to parse. Er, where are we? What’s going on? In Zoom theater, every show is “Waiting for Godot”: neither here nor there and with no room for proper entrances and exits. Oh, for the drama of a slammed door!

The most ambitious project was “Who’s There?,” created by the Transit Ensemble and co-directed by Sim Yan Ying (who is also in the cast) and Alvin Tan. The show multiplies bells and whistles like embedded instant audience polls and YouTube and Instagram Live videos as it tackles cultural differences in three vastly different countries and cultures.

It at least attempts to raise provocative issues, as when a Black American woman (Camille Thomas) attacks the use of blackface in a Malaysian musical based on a folk tale. “You can’t come here and impose your Western ideas on us, the ‘backward, uncivilized, insensitive, blackface-loving society,’” her interlocutor (Ghafir Akbar) tells her. “You are no different from your white colonizer.”

Unfortunately, the show smothers these ideas in wooden, didactic dialogue and exposition, and is overlong at 100 minutes. Maybe we were not in “Waiting for Godot” after all, but in “No Exit.”

Ice Factory
Through Aug. 15; newohiotheatre.org.

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