Virtual Reality is a Virtual Distraction in Renaissance’s “Belonging

At its very essence, theater is about words.

Someone writes words. Someone says the words. And someone hears the words.

If the words aren’t there, not much can be done to salvage a play. 

And an important thing to remember about words is that you don’t want to let anything get in the way of those words.

All this by way of discussing a trio of short plays unveiled by Renaissance Theaterworks. The plays, all by playwrights of color, were groups under the heading “Belonging.” As Renaissance says in the press release:  All three of these visually stunning theatrical gems attempt to  define “Who Belongs?”

The answer, unfortunately, is that none of what Renaissance has put forward belongs anywhere except out of sight and out of mind. The problems with this disjointed production stem not from the words.

But the production of these three plays shows how difficult it is to try and create a virtual world that enhances the human experience. 

Renaissance has for over a quarter of a century provided woman focused theater that is as high class as any company in town. Their production of “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” several years ago still ranks as one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. 

Virtual Reality is an effect that uses projected environments to generate realistic images as well as other sensations that place the user in this virtual environment. 

According to the credits for these three plays, a company known as The Outer Loop Theater Experience is responsible for the virtual realities in these three plays.

Let’s start at the top with “The Winged Man” by José Rivera.This is the story of a young Latina who finds herself pregnant by a winged man who either is or isn’t a figment of her imagination.

The virtual reality is so phony that it totally distracts from whatever message the play may have. The play opens with a shot that could be from a drone as it sails over mountains and fields to finally end up in a cave where the girl and the winged man are. It is so preposterous looking that I was immediately put off and disinterested in what was coming.

At one point the scene had the girl sitting in a tree – again virtually – and it looked like a video game designed by a second grade class that was just learning how to code.

The wonkiness of the virtual reality caused all movement to be jittery and unrealistic that there was no hope of catching on to the magical reality of Mr. Rivera’s play.

The second play was “Poof” by the acclaimed Lynne Nottage, the only woman to have won two Pulitzer prizes for her work. The story focuses on a woman – a victim of abuse – whose husband spontaneously explodes into a pile of ashes during an argument. 

The problems here had less to do with a virtual reality and more to do with actual reality.There was a pile of ashes on the kitchen table that didn’t look like a pile of ashes until somebody said it was a pile of ashes. It looked like nothing more than one of those speaker phones that are the centerpiece of office conference room tables. 

There is a gem of something worthwhile in Ms. Nottage’s play and the cast made grand attempts to catch the gem. But like movies, acting for a screen needs to be subtle and dialed back from the level you need in live theater. The  message did not get through. 

The final play was “All of Everything” by Alayna Jacqueline.

This was the perfect example of how amateur virtual reality can absolutely ruin professional real reality (if there is such a phrase).

The story featured two of the best actors in Wisconsin, Malkia Stampley and Chike Johnson. They are husband and wife and in this short production they play a young couple. The story follows them as they discuss their dreams for growing old together and the benchmarks that come along, children, weddings, new jobs, etc.

All of this story is told under the subtle threat of impending violence against a young black man by police.

It’s a powerful story, but is so cheapened by virtual reality tricks that I felt cheated out of the impact this story should have had.

Ms. Jacqueline’s story would have been told much more powerfully if Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stampley was seated on stools, side by side, with a black backdrop and just talked to the camera. 

I have immense admiration for Renaissance trying to highlight the works of populations underserved in the world of theater. I just wish they had dialed back to gimmicks and stuck with the words.

After all, words are the essence of theater.

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