Review: “Reunion” & “Dark Pony”

With the shelter-in-place order estimated to be in effect for quite some time, many theatre companies have turned to streaming archival footage of shows previously produced to maintain a connection with their audiences. Bay Area director Patrick Nims has come up with a new entity that’s diving headfirst into the pandemic-necessitated world of on-line theatre. His Zoom Theatre will stage live productions specifically for the “new medium”. The company’s inaugural production consists of two early David Mamet one-acts: Reunion and Dark Pony.

Little known and often missing from reference material about Mamet, the plays were written in the mid ‘70’s, around the time of his better-known American Buffalo.  They are both two-character dramas and contain a lot for which Mamet scripts are known: sharp dialogue (though little in the way of profanity), pauses, and a male-centric world. What they have that most of Mamet’s work is not known for is a tinge of sweetness, though sometimes it’s a bitter sweet.

Reunion is a 50-minute two-hander that is just what its title implies. 25-year-old Carole (Voni Kengla) has come to reconnect with her estranged 50-something father Bernie (David Yen.) Bernie is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking has led to the loss of his driver’s license and the best job he ever had. Carole is in a loveless marriage and finds herself desperately needing a father. Both are just existing and seeking something more in life. Perhaps they can provide that something for each other.

Voni Kengla, David Yen

Set up as a dining table conversation, we see a split screen of each character as they would be seen by the other. Green screen backdrops of Bernie’s apartment walls provide the “set”, and the blocking has been carefully designed to maintain the illusion of closeness, even though the performers are hundreds of miles from each other (Yen is here in California, Kengla is in Oregon.) Bernie approaches the camera with a cup of tea, and as it goes out of sight, Carole brings one into camera range.

Bits like that and the use of Qlab sound effects enhance the theatricality of the production but the success of Reunion rests squarely on the performers’ shoulders. Rehearsed remotely and in less than three weeks, Yen and Kengla play well off of each other, though Mamet being Mamet means Yen carries a heavier dialogue load. Kudos to both of them for overcoming the myriad of technical challenges (mirror imaging, sound delays, etc.) that present themselves with this new medium.

Yen and Kengla return after the conclusion of Reunion with Dark Pony, a 10-minute one-act that consists of a father telling his daughter a fairytale during a car ride home. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it gets more interesting if you consider the characters as earlier versions of the ones from Reunion.

Voni Kengla, David Yen

I viewed the production on an iPad Air 2 off of a mid-speed wifi connection. Picture and sound quality were good with minimal video or audio issues like an occasional short video freeze or audio distortion/echoing.

In an attempt to make the viewing experience more “life/live-like”, Nims gives the audience the option to turn on their microphones so that the performers can hear their reactions. A noble idea, but one that I would suggest works as more of a distraction for other audience members than feedback for the performers. Despite the usual admonishments to not have any aural distractions (like dogs or babies) in the viewing “area” and to turn down microphone levels, there were some moments when an audience member’s reaction overpowered the audio of the performers. And while audience reactions are desirable (and truly the purpose of theatre), the current technology makes it feel like each reaction is being piped directly into your ear, because it is. Mute the mics.     

Nims has an interesting experiment going here and he’s the first to say it is all an experiment.  A short play, a single set and a minimal cast seems to work pretty well with the medium. Zoom Theatre is planning a couple more productions over the next few months including Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs which will feature husband-and-wife performers who are sheltering-in-place together. No split-screen necessary for that one.     

Reunion & Dark Pony will stream live on Saturday, April 11 at 8:00 pm.

FREE – Click HERE for more information or to sign up for one of the 85 “seats”.

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