First Stage Production Shows the Perils of Virtual Programming

Milwaukee’s First Stage theater company is one of the great companies for young people in the world. Artists from all over use the First Stage model when trying to create family friendly theater companies.

As a city, we are lucky to have First Stage around. Their professional productions provide work for a variety of adult artists and for young people beginning their lives in the world of theater. I am always pleased and excited with each each and every production at the Marcus Center.

But the current production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” is a vivid example of the difficulties performing plays online. Simply put, this effort falls flat and it’s hard to figure out where the problems reside.

The play, written by Qui Nguyen, was originally intended as an adult comedy-drama about a woman named Agnes Evans whose parents and sister Tilly were killed in an automobile accident. The drama revolves around Agnes playing a Dungeons and Dragons module that Tilly had created.

It had its debut almost 10 years ago in New York and also enjoyed a run at Steppenwolf in Chicago. There is a version of the play intended for young audiences, and this is the one First Stage used. It removes almost all the explicit language and soft-pedals some of the focus on Tilly’s sexuality. It also turns Agnes from a grown woman into a high school cheerleader.

That version has been widely produced around the world, especially at the high school level and it has been successful, but the First Stage production has come up empty.

Directed by Coltyn Giltner, the play is missing the kind of interaction between characters that is at the heart of live theater. Instead of a story that invites the audience in, this is really a flat and unimaginative recitation of lines from a play by characters bound by Zoom boxes and a convoluted story.

One thing clearly obviously missing is any sense that these characters are talking to each other. For some reason, every time a character speaks, that character is looking straight ahead at the camera. The only way that dialogue can seem close to realistic is to have actors look in a designated direction, and the other actor look in the opposite direction.

Otherwise what we are left with is something less than even a staged reading. It is more like a recitation and it left me feeling so empty. The run of “The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure,” written by John MacLay, is coming to an end, but it was head and shoulders above Monster for the kind of communication that is the backbone of any theatrical production.

Let’s hope that First Stage soon gets back on a real stage.

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