Live Theater Makes Partial Return With PlayGround’s Zoom Fest

Nora el Samahy as Cassandra in Disbelief by Garret Jon Groenveld, as part of PlayGround's Zoom Fest. (courtesy of PlayGround)

In times of great violence, the ability to tell the future would seem to be a welcome advantage. To gaze into a crystal ball, roll the dice, consult the oracle and be forewarned—which is to say, forearmed. But what of the prophet whose visions are ignored and whose words fall like ineffectual rain on a wasteland of doubters? It’s in this scenario we find Cassandra, doomed to see the future, but powerless to alter it.

Now, a new retelling of the Cassandra myth by Garret Jon Groenveld plays out as part of the PlayGround Zoom Fest. Disbelief premiered as part of the festival on Zoom on May 30, and is available on demand through June 30.

In Groenveld's Disbelief, directed by Tracy Ward, Cassandra may be unable to change her fate, but her demeanor is far from that of a shunned madwoman. Portrayed by Nora el Samahy, this Cassandra faces her destruction with a grounded frankness. Matter-of-factly she lays out her truth for all to hear, and when the populace inevitably fail to heed her, refuses to internalize their inability to believe her as her fault. This self-assured Cassandra knows she’s not to blame for the skepticism of others, even though it costs her credibility, and eventually her life.

Nora el Samahy as Cassandra in Disbelief by Garret Jon Groenveld, as part of PlayGround's Zoom Fest. (Nicole Gluckstern)

In Groenveld’s take, Cassandra’s defining trait is not the futility of her prophecies, but the courage of her convictions. Given the “gift” of future sight by the God Apollo, whose motivations are strictly self-serving, she’s consequently cursed by him when his amorous advances are rebuffed. It’s a state of affairs the two keep circling around in repetitive confrontations that occasionally stray into poetics, but which never resolve the tension between them.

As Apollo, Michael Torres gives off superficially affable, white-collar “civility” vibes while systemically creating a torturous cycle from which Cassandra cannot escape. In turn, el Samahy’s Cassandra displays a patient didacticism that Apollo cannot dismantle with his professions of love. Again and again, she explains she cannot love him as he wants her to, but he is blind to his own disbelief.

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Much of Disbelief’s “action” unfolds in the faces of the performers. Positioned sedately in front of their web cameras, each talking head expresses a full range of human and godly emotion with a twitch of an eyebrow, a sharp exhalation of breath, a knowingly direct gaze.

Michael Torres as Apollo in Disbelief by Garret Jon Groenveld, as part of PlayGround's Zoom Fest. (Nicole Gluckstern)

A chorus of three (Rinabeth Apostal, Christian Wilburn, Aaron Wilton) take on the roles of the other significant figures in Cassandra’s life—family members, suitors, and captors—with simple costume changes designed by Ashley Renee, and color-coordinated backdrops designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke. Keeping each speaker “centerstage” for their lines gives each bit character an unexpected weight in the production, while Kalon Thibodeauux’ sound design—a relentless percussion—gives the production its heartbeat.

Throughout the PlayGround Zoom Festival, which includes 25 livestreamed events, different directors have risen to the challenges of the technology, sometimes choosing to place actors together onscreen, sometimes keeping them spotlighted individually. Without benefit of traditional entrances and exits, finessing the timing of transitions is still a work in progress, but for the most part, the flow of each performance is comparable to that of a production presented at PlayGround’s Potrero Stage. Virtual backgrounds do much of the heavy lifting in terms of setting each scene, enhanced by a few strategically positioned props. Occasional digital glitching occurs, as well as good old-fashioned human error such as dropped lines, but for the most part, the shows have gone on as planned.

Having migrated all of their spring and summer shows to the digital realm, PlayGround's Zoom Fest has set the stage, as it were, for future explorations of the form. Running through June 14, the festival has brought together shorts, staged readings, and world premieres, and is working out the bugs as they go. Next weekend’s Zoom world premiere—Genevieve Jessee’s The Rendering Cycle, directed by Margo Hall—runs two nights (June 6-7), and the festival closes with a weekend’s worth of “The Best of Playground,” a reimagining of short plays from the past season.

Rinabeth Apostal as Helen in 'Disbelief' by Garret Jon Groenveld, as part of PlayGround's Zoom Fest. (Nicole Gluckstern)

As more theater-makers experiment with the viability of meeting software for creative purposes, it’s worth wondering whether or not these forays will result in platforms designed more specifically for their needs. With early adopters such as PlayGround to provide input and feedback, maybe we’ll see Silicon Valley rise to the challenge of making videoconferencing software that can be more creatively manipulated for live performance demands. For example, PlayGround’s Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann mentions he’d like to have a way to make possible an undercurrent of audience reaction, so the performers can feel more present.

But even without those improvements, PlayGround's Zoom Fest has been a welcome container of shared, live performance, and an exemplar of the adaptability of the artform. Believe it.
 

The PlayGround Zoom Fest runs through June 14. Details here.