Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater are presenting the streaming work, which is adapted from the 2017 Bushwick Starr stage production. The play, with film direction by Amber McGinnis and stage direction by Emilyn Kowaleski, was shot at Woolly.
Christian’s narrator figure holds confident sway, now singing at the piano in a golden voice, now prowling around while theorizing about metaphysics, now talking about a Southern childhood shared with oddballs, peculiar lore, Ovid-worthy metamorphoses and ghosts. At one point, she clambers atop a vending machine to probe a homemade shrine.
In addition to singing and accompanying the bluesy folk score, the small band of musicians occasionally acts, at one point donning wigs to channel a flamboyant piano teacher.
The roving focus of “Animal Wisdom” evokes a darting mind, touching on such topics as what musical time signature God might have and whether kudzu or catfish are greater threats to Natchez, Miss. The film’s blocking, which has the performers roaming the Woolly building, and the camera movement artfully mirror the dramaturgical restlessness. It’s as if place, camera cuts and angles, music, acting and digital technology have fused into a virtual Ouija board for artistic communion.
“Animal Wisdom” isn’t the only piece of local digital theater centered on purported autobiography: Studio Theatre is streaming director Joanie Schultz’s production of “2.5 Minute Ride,” a funny and poignant riff on the mysteries of life and family. Written by Lisa Kron (“Fun Home”), the 1990s solo show presents Lisa (Dina Thomas) recalling poles-apart journeys taken with her 74-year-old father, a Holocaust survivor: An annual family excursion to an Ohio theme park. A onetime trip to Auschwitz, where her father’s parents were killed.
Thomas lends amiable wryness to Lisa, who is alternately amused, flummoxed and moved by her relatives’ eccentricities, including her dad’s love of roller coasters. Sometimes hilarious, the play ultimately becomes a moving portrait of a person grappling with human complexity and past and future loss.
But the production isn’t as successful as “Animal Wisdom” in finding the immediacy in digital theater, an admittedly herculean task. The distancing tendencies of streaming are only emphasized in the Studio show with distracting moments that show Lisa simultaneously in two frames, from different angles, diluting her presence. In general, you long to be in the physical proximity of the character, to better gauge the scale and nuance of her words, and to feel the trust inherent to an intimate confessional.
Still, during a pandemic that has brought much separation, there’s power to a story about close relationships, even if human connection can be its own kind of roller coaster.
Animal Wisdom by Heather Christian. Film direction, Amber McGinnis; stage direction, Emilyn Kowaleski; production design, Christopher Bowser; costumes, Heather McDevitt Barton; percussion design, Eric Farber; editing, Rachel Pearl; director of photography, Aiden Korotkin; music editor, Brian Bender. About 2 hours. Closed captioning available. $19-$49. Streaming through June 27 at animalwisdomfilm.com.
2.5 Minute Ride by Lisa Kron. Directed by Joanie Schultz; video director, Wes Culwell; lighting design, Sherrice Mojgani; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; assistant director, Annabel Heacock. About 75 minutes. Closed captioning available. $37. Streaming through June 6 at studiotheatre.org.