Although some people find it aggravating and even tedious when productions turn towards the meta, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for the artists who make a virtue out of such an approach and personally enjoy the cryptic nature of the self-referencing and nods towards other works – one of the reasons I’ve always rated T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I suppose. As far as online theatre is concerned you would be hard pushed to find anything more meta than the work of American group Theater In Quarantine. A couple of their latest pieces really excel themselves in this field and only start to make full sense sense if you have an awareness of other stage works which inform TiQ’s finished product such as relatively obscure 1960s musicals and a British stage farce classic from the 1980s.
Honestly Sincere opens by focusing on a bulletin board – the sort a teenager might have in their bedroom. It is worth hitting pause to drink in the detail here as much of it will provide clues to what is to follow. Gradually the camera zooms in to the intimate performance space which, as ever, is the repurposed 8 foot square closet in Joshua William Gelb’s New York apartment where the performer is talking on the phone. Gelb is portraying 13 year old Greta Hemburger illicitly using her mother’s cell phone to call a friend. As teenagers do they talk about this and that hopping from topic to topic such as parents, homework and the school play but being particularly fascinated by the act of kissing and the problems on a magazine’s Agony Aunt page. Liza Birkenmeier’s script perfectly captures the rhythms and idiom of such chat but under it all we gradually realise that Greta has another agenda. She wants the phone number of Ethan, one of the boys in her class who she hopes will take her to the school dance. But even this turns out to be another ruse as what she’s really after is connecting with his older sister Sabel.
Where it becomes fascinating is that all the dialogue sits rather in opposition to what we are presented with visually. Although what we hear is definitely a teenage girl, what we can see is a man dressed in a grey suit with a hat and briefcase looking like he has just stepped out of the 1960s. I started to wonder if the play was going to make some points about the sort of internet grooming where men pretend to be young girls in order to inveigle their way into their confidence. But not a bit of it. We really are expected to accept what is happening vocally at face value. The riddle surrounding the visual element is that Greta longed to play the lead role of Albert in the school musical, Bye Bye Birdie, and she is dressed like Dick van Dyke from the film version of this show. Whether that is all in her mind or she is playing some elaborate game of dress up is deliberately left ambiguous. It becomes another layer in this story of role playing and fitting into conventional behaviours whether dictated by society in general or more narrowly by one’s peers. It’s a sharp and satirical piece which actually rewards more than one viewing. I rewatched the first ten minutes to see what I had missed first time round – quite a bit it would seem.
Once I saw the opening premise of The Nine O’Clock Problem I expected to enjoy this even more. Gelb, as “himself” tells his audience that TiQ is about to perform a version of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, it having come near the top of a poll amongst supporters as for what show they would like to see tackled (Gelb flatly refuses to entertain doing Cats which was the actual winner). And indeed, there’s Mrs Clackett with her plate of sardines as we are treated to the opening section of the famous farce albeit in a one person, one closet version. Frayn’s play starts, of course, as the dress rehearsal of an onstage farce which keeps breaking down through cast ineptitude etc. There are also, apparently, gremlins in this particular production of the machine which also keeps breaking down. There’s a delicious sense of layering going on here though what anyone would make of it who doesn’t know the original I can’t begin to imagine.
Eventually Noises Off is abandoned, Gelb finally leaves the confined space in which he has been performing for over a year and we get to see the rest of his apartment as he muses aloud on what it all means. In essence we are treated to a faux documentary about how TiQ’s shows are put together and performed. Gelb (or “Gelb”) is particularly fascinated by the whole business of live performing via the internet when there is, in point of fact, a 28 second delay between what he is doing and what we are seeing. It’s a salutary reminder that, in the strictest sense of the term, even those online shows which bill themselves as live actually aren’t. This intellectual philosophising is less entertaining but certainly thought provoking even if it does start to meander rather, especially when we start to see other members of the production team – if indeed that is who they truly are. The final section is a baffling stylised movement sequence with either two hooded figures or Gelb duplicated back in the closet again – the sort of thing that TiQ started out by doing; thus, the project comes full circle. All this is played out to the voice of an internet service provider who is attempting to rectify the technical glitches the show has experienced. Whether they do or not is a moot point as there is, of course, a 28 second delay by which time the show has ended.
As ever, TiQ’s work remains technically proficient, brain cell stimulating, mostly entertaining and highly unpredictable with many fascinating layers to unpick. I don’t know whether Gelb leaving the closet in the last show indicates some sort of desire to wind up the project, but I hope not. Even if it is, it is good to know that the work has been captured for posterity and will form an interesting part of the story of when stage drama went online and artists continued to find ingenious solutions to what might have seemed insoluble problems. I’m pleased to have come across TiQ some months ago and although the product might not always be totally successful it is never less than fascinating to watch.
Honestly Sincere and The Nine O’Clock Problem are available via Theater In Quarantine’s You Tube channel – click here
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