Digital theater, as an audience-less endeavor, tends to be inherently eerie. Nothing can pull an at-home viewer away from the artistic escape like a quip that plays to crickets, or an applause break turned pregnant pause. But as seats at Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre and Arena Stage remain vacant more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, these D.C.-area institutions are finding ways to wield that hindrance as a storytelling strength.
In Studio’s “Until the Flood,” a filmed production of Dael Orlandersmith’s 2016 play, director Reginald L. Douglas opens his innovative adaptation with a panning shot of the empty theater, eventually landing on a copy of the script. By delivering a minimalist mounting of the play, Douglas and his ensemble — Ora Jones, Felicia Curry and Billie Krishawn — punctuate theater’s raw power by boiling it down to its base ingredients: the page and the performances.
Orlandersmith penned “Until the Flood” after traveling to St. Louis to conduct dozens of interviews in the spring of 2015, after the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The result is a string of monologues uttered by eight composite characters — of varying ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses — wrestling with the complexities of the case, and how it influenced and elevated the conversation around systemic racism in America.
It’s a tragically urgent piece, crafted with nuance and empathy for all involved. Orlandersmith played every character in previous productions, but here, Douglas reworked the solo show to accommodate a trio of Black actresses. In deft transitions, each monologue bleeds into the next — a subtle but potent choice that literalizes the conversation the play hopes to facilitate.
Each actress communicates character without delving into caricature. Jones lends gravitas to an aging teacher whose overwhelming emotions bookend the play. Curry is particularly gut-wrenching as a 17-year-old boy who fears he may share Brown’s fate. Krishawn inhabits her characters — including an unabashed white supremacist — with intensity and vulnerability.
Along the way, Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design incorporates a distant hum that slowly swells, like a rising tide of tension. Video director Wes Culwell uses focused, unfussy camerawork to capture the performances with arresting intimacy. With the entire theater at his disposal, Douglas breaks any visual monotony by letting the actresses drift across the aisles, seats and stage.
In Signature’s “Midnight at the Never Get,” the lack of an audience feels part and parcel with the show’s ethereal setting. With a book, music and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick, the 2016 musical is described by an unseen announcer as a “song outside of time,” as the night’s velvet-voiced emcee, Trevor (Sam Bolen, who co-conceived the show), performs from an otherworldly void. There, he has painstakingly re-created the underground cabaret show he used to play with his lover and pianist partner, Arthur (Christian Douglas), at a seedy Greenwich Village nightclub called the Never Get.
As a gay love story in the 1960s, on the precipice of the Stonewall riots, Trevor and Arthur’s tale is a tragic one of romance impeded by societal trappings. But there’s a universality to Trevor’s experience, as the show composes a heartfelt lament on love and regret, and the everlasting crater a relationship can leave in one’s soul.
Director Matthew Gardiner adeptly turns his eye for onstage spectacle to the screen. Justin Chiet’s cinematography is dynamic but never distracting. Adam Honoré’s lush lighting — smoky hues of amber, gold and blue — complements Sonnenblick’s sumptuous score, which is highlighted by the heartfelt “The Mercy of Love,” the boisterous “Wallace Falls” and the cleverly sardonic “My Boy in Blue.”
Bolen’s tortured Trevor does the heavy narrative lifting, as his charisma starts to crack in the face of painful recollections and realizations. As Arthur — sheepish, with festering frustration — Douglas nimbly walks a tricky tightrope. And Signature veteran Bobby Smith, as a third character introduced in the show’s dying moments, nails the aching finale, “A Little Less to Lose,” like a ringer brought off the bench.
Arena Stage, meanwhile, has left the theater entirely in an effort to rethink its creative constraints. For the third and final entry in Arena Riffs — a commissioned music series that granted composers free rein to create new works — Rona Siddiqui delivered “A More Perfect Union,” a visual EP examining her relationship with the United States.
The opener, “Perfect Us,” is an upbeat earworm as singer Kuhoo Verma — who dexterously tackles all three tunes — is enveloped in a green-screened collage of Americana. The power ballad “Ghost Train” juxtaposes pop culture clips (“Scandal,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Inception” snippets among them) with war footage and abstract imagery to depict a descent into a toxic relationship. The piece concludes with “Your Blanket,” a forlorn ballad played over watercolor illustrations that capture life’s simple elegance.
Until the Flood, by Dael Orlandersmith. Directed by Reginald L. Douglas. Video direction, Wes Culwell; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Elisheba Ittoop. 80 minutes. $37-$65. Through May 23. studiotheatre.org.
Midnight at the Never Get, book, music and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Angie Benson; costumes, Frederick Deeben; lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Ryan Hickey; photography direction, Justin Chiet. 93 minutes. $35. Through June 21. sigtheatre.org.
A More Perfect Union, created by Rona Siddiqui. 18 minutes. Free and ongoing. arenastage.org.