The idea was hatched by Washington-based singer-songwriter Mary McBride and her Forum for Cultural Engagement, and supported by Arena Stage, Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and two Russian theater groups: Moscow’s Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival, and from Yekaterinburg, the Center for Modern Drama. Kia Corthron, Eduardo Machado, Craig Lucas, Heather Raffo and Lauren Yee were among the American writers who signed on, contributing plays of about 12 to 15 minutes each, on a general theme we’re all hip to these days: isolation. (They can be viewed at flashactsfestival.org.)
The result, in 40 videos produced in two countries, amounts to a fascinating smorgasbord of side-by-side interpretations of life in the time of pandemic (though relatively few of the plays even mention covid-19). In Corthron’s biting “Penitence,” for example — directed in English by Isaiah Matthew Wooden and in Russian by Petr Nezluchenko — the portrait of aloneness takes the form of a monologue delivered in the psychologically corrosive solitude of prison. In Yaroslava Pulinovich’s “We Shall Live,” the confinement resides in the despair of a dying husband (Sergey Trekin in the Russian version; Jeremy Gallardo in the English), whose wife (Valerie Galkina, Christina Clark) won’t release him from her oppressive optimism.
And in Heather Raffo’s ruminative “Event Horizon,” that space station is the setting for an astronaut (Jimmie “JJ” Jeter, Anna Khlestkina) to contemplate the cosmic debt we owe for our existence. “It’s called the ‘overview effect,’ ” the astronaut says, serenely, of the seat on this celestial porch, in the twin pieces directed in English by Timothy Douglas and in Russian by Elena Nenasheva.
One of the successes of “Flash Acts” arises from the dialogues between the companion playlets. Some are displayed in Zoom formats; others as cinematic works. (All benefit from the expertise of Jared Mezzocchi, a noted multimedia designer and University of Maryland theater professor who is the festival’s director of virtual media design.) In some instances, such as with Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “These Days” — the monologue of an obituary writer played equally warmly by Jade Wheeler and Diana Yakubova — the account unfolds similarly in English and in Russian. The story of someone whose job involves a daily reckoning with death when the toll is mounting needs little embroidery; directors Timothy Johnson and Ilya Kalin leave it up to the actress and the stationary camera.
For others, the directors head off in opposite directions, perhaps no more than in Machado’s “Why?” The American version of this agitating tale of a Latinx woman (Jennifer Paredes) on the run from immigration agents unfolds realistically — even if the “shocking” twist ultimately seems a bit preachy. Perhaps that’s why the director of the Russian version, Anton Butakov, has chosen an overtly absurdist approach: In his take, the fleeing woman, Veronica (Alisa Kravtsova), appears in the garish, sugar skull makeup of a Mexican Day of the Dead mask. The verge-on-hysteria dialogue by smartphone between Veronica and her boyfriend, Billy (Andrey Lukyanov), is delivered in a monotone — a diametrical contrast to Veronica’s harrowing plight.
You can dip in and out of the plays as you please — admission is free, and the Russian versions have English subtitles — with some of the most enjoyable dancing on the edge of the sinister. Lucas’s “Representative” explores this dimension as comedy: A call to a health-care provider (by the excellent Kellie Overbey in director Shelley Butler’s American version; the sturdy Evgeny Startsev in Egor Matveev’s Russian take) devolves deliciously. After the voice-activated runaround that every consumer around the world can relate to, the caller is mistakenly linked into a conference call in which an executive is laying out a nefarious business plot.
It’s the accidental connection longed for by any customer who suspects that the benign face of a corporation is a distracting facade. And watching this embodied in the guises of actors from divergent cultures adds to the feeling that Kafkaesque nightmares are universal. Ekaterina Avgustenyak’s “The Interview” goes for something of the same dystopian effect: A young job applicant (Julia Gorodova, Kim Blanck) is having second thoughts about being hired by a depersonalizing organization. In fact, she herself may have already been reduced to a collection of pixels and algorithms.
I haven’t even gotten to “About Vika Ivanova and a Woman’s Calling” — Maria Ogneva’s tragicomedy about a betrayed woman on the verge, or Yee’s “Cassandra at Bedtime,” a storytelling one-act you could watch with your young ones. In a time of theatrical paucity, “Flash Acts” serves up some worthwhile small bites.