You’ve had it with Zoom, I’ve had it with Zoom. Still we’ve persisted, all through the months of this infernal shutdown. Theater companies, which in the grief and panic of the coronavirus pandemic’s early days cobbled together one dry Zoom play reading after another, have now — mercifully — had time to develop more-imaginative formats for digital consumption.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre and Arena Stage are among the Washington theaters with new offerings on their websites. Still, how these works fare on practical levels — such as WiFi reliability and technical mastery of a visual medium — reveals the Internet as bumpy terrain for a field that breathes more naturally in shared public air.
Viewers must show forbearance for artists exercising new virtual muscles. And in each of these productions, one finds much to admire in the aspiration to push the boundaries of theatrical storytelling. But there are some glitches in Web performance that can dull the intended effect.
Take, for instance, the problems that handicapped the live stream Thursday of Woolly’s searingly intelligent “Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran.” Created by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley — and performed by Alipoor and Peyvand Sadeghian — the 70-minute play is a kaleidoscopic anthropological survey. It starts with a single tragic event, the fatal 2015 crash of a sports car in Tehran, and uses it for a breathtaking treatise on global excess, human overreach and the possibly terminal damage inflicted by (mostly White European) hegemonic cultures.
It’s hard to believe the production originated on the stage in the United Kingdom, because it seems so craftily assembled for digital. Its creators ask you to follow along, both on the live stream and through a private hashtag on Instagram. The narrators toggle between the platforms, relating in reverse chronology the personal details of the young, affluent Iranian couple who died in the crash — just as one might scroll through anyone’s Instagram account, ever more deeply through photos posted in the past.
The conceit is thrilling, and the argument for historical linkage that Alipoor and Housley construct is inspired. The difficulty on Thursday was that the dialogue was out of sync for much of the production — at least, it was on my connection — and as a result, the captioning didn’t match the narration. At times, in my efforts to try to figure out what was awry, I lost the thread of this elegant rhetorical tapestry. Some of the rich flavor of the intellectual stew became diluted.
The issue, on the other hand, with Studio Theatre’s “Cock” was the eye of the camera itself. David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, first staged Mike Bartlett’s acute drama of sexual ambivalence in 2014; he explains in a program note that he wanted to do it again “because I had a notion that cameras would invite some different ways in.” And indeed, the play becomes an even more intensely watchable battle of wills in which John, the central character portrayed by an impeccably anguished Randy Harrison, struggles to conform to the demands for commitment from his lovers — one male (Scott Parkinson), one female (Kathryn Tkel).
Parkinson, reprising his 2014 performance, and Tkel provide powerhouse turns here. Their characters, identified only as M and W, are as confidently anchored in their own sexual choices as John seems unsettled in his. (Alan Wade offers persuasive pique as the fourth character, M’s interfering father, F.) As you watch John’s torture escalate at being compelled to declare himself gay or straight, you question ever more deeply the world’s insistence at such binary pronouncements.
Bartlett, author of the Broadway monarchal satire “King Charles III,” does a princely job of diagraming the dispute; that John has the blurriest identity and the only recognizable name is just one of his canny touches. And Muse, setting the play in a circular sand pit, the barefooted actors bathed in an octagon of fluorescent light, bottles tension so effectively he could sell the extra in an online souvenir shop.
The cameras, though, sometimes feel too present. Muse overuses split screens and other devices, and the lens doesn’t always ideally frame the perspective: One body looms larger than the other, or the lighting doesn’t quite match up on the divided sides of the screen. This is a case of a director still getting his filmic feet wet.
In Arena Stage’s “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents,” another budding film director in the District, Psalmayene 24, gets a welcome chance to experiment with technique. His 23-minute film is a wistful expression, in hip-hop and spoken vignettes, of the opportunities a pandemic robs from theater artists. Recorded in black-and-white, the production gathers five Washington actors — Louis E. Davis, Shannon Dorsey, Gary L. Perkins III, Justin Weaks and the director himself — who portray a troupe waiting in a snow-covered park for inspiration to strike, and theaters to reopen.
The project is one of a trio of short original musicals Arena has commissioned under the umbrella title “Arena Riffs”; it has already unveiled “My Joy is Heavy!” by the folk-rock duo the Bengsons.
You get tastes in the embryonic “The Freewheelin’ Insurgents” of stories that cry out for development, most interestingly in the relationship between Dorsey’s Zora and Perkins’s Noble. Their romance is revealed in a brief “stylized movement duet,” danced to a jazz underscoring played by Nick Tha 1da.
“What are they doing?” asks Davis’s character, Church.
“I don’t know,” replies Weaks’s Dante.
“The Freewheelin’ Insurgents” has that kind of raw, improvisational home-movie feel. Like the shutdown itself, the movie comes across as unfinished business. As Psalmayene 24 adds more context, his film will be worth another look.
Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, created by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley. Video design, Thom Buttery and Tom Newell; sound, Simon McCorry; lighting, Jess Bernberg. 70 minutes. $15.99. Through April 18. woollymammoth.net.
Cock, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by David Muse. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; video production, Wes Culwell, Randy Harrison. 100 minutes. $37. Through April 18. studiotheatre.org.
The Freewheelin’ Insurgents, written and directed by Psalmayene 24. 23 minutes. Admission is free. Ongoing. arenastage.org.