Critic: Vanessa Cappuccio-Baer

4 Comments on “Critic: Vanessa Cappuccio-Baer

  1. “Any system that values profit over human life is a very dangerous one indeed.”
    -Suzy Kassem, RISE UP AND SALUTE THE SUN: THE WRITINGS OF SUZY KASSEM

    Emmanuel College’s THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK is not afraid to grapple with the myriad of harsh realities the pandemic has exposed us to. In fact, it is the crux of the piece. The collegiate theatre company’s writing team has developed a choose-your-own-adventure style work that is identified in its disclaimer message as “an immersive theater piece in the dystopian/horror genre”. While the “macabre” moniker accurately describes the gruesome, horror story aspect of the work, I believe the most alarming content to be the social commentary the play provides. THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK offers a sharp, satirical perspective on the country’s egregiously underwhelming response to COVID19, and challenges the audience member to reckon with it.

    Entering the play’s portal introduces us to a world overtaken by Terravox, a fictional corporate conglomerate that is guiding a dystopian version of America through the latest strain of COVID. In this version of the future, not only has the virus lasted for years, it has mutated in a way such that the country is under a severe lockdown, leaving its citizens to cope in long term isolation.

    Terravox’s overwhelming societal domination is evidenced most concisely in a report delivered by news team member Scout Stevens, played by Kelley Kazorek. It is worth noting that the character’s report is coming from a place of fiscally motivated bias. The network Stevens is broadcast on is owned by Terravox, after all. However, it still exemplifies much about what the play’s dystopian version of America looks like. Each line of the report offers a rich socio-political commentary on the shortcomings of our country’s current response to the pandemic.

    Stevens begins the report by bolstering the success of the company. “Terravox has, of course, expanded its business model. Where this giant corporation once focused on delivery of goods and services, coupled with video content streaming, it has now become an essential public utility.”

    This indicates to me that Terravox is exploiting a disturbing window of opportunity. The longevity of the pandemic has developed a chasm of excessive upward mobility to the corporations large enough to weather the storm of economic distress. So, those in power become more powerful. They expand. I would be remiss if I did not reflect on how it highlights the economic crisis we face today. Due to the country’s lack of sufficient federal financial relief, small businesses from coast to coast are either suffering a great loss, or have been forced to shut down completely. Meanwhile, multi-billion dollar corporations have seized the pandemic as an opportunity to generate an unprecedented level of economic growth. The rich become exponentially richer, as the rest of us are left unsure how to survive.

    Stevens continues to champion the efforts of Terravox, rattling off their myriad achievements: “Delivering groceries and supplies to everyone at no charge, providing much needed companionship to everyone with its new video companion services, and developing Refresh”. This portrays how the company is able to develop an ethical appeal that sweeps the nation. When the government fails to support the livelihood of its citizens, the most powerful forces within the private sector step up to the plate. They gain traction through the exploitation of those who are in need of relief, offering stability and comfort in every form conceivable. Through this narrative, it becomes clear to me how the corporation capitalizes on the trust they built with their consumers to push their product, Refresh.

    The ubiquitous nature of Terravox in and of itself seems clearly inspired by Amazon. And although Jeff Bezos isn’t sending us care packages including brain-melting flavored water, the allusion to the multi-billion dollar company highlights its explosive growth due to the pandemic. It also implores me to consider how the sheer magnitude of a problematic business is a troubling, and frustratingly accepted aspect of our society. The American company is guilty of a multitude of injustices towards its lowest paid division of workers, yet as of 2021 makes up approximately fifty percent of the United States’ ecommerce market. Terravox effectively underlines the oxymoronic tone-deafness of the company, and of the government as passive bystanders to its continual rise in power.

    Ultimately, the play brings me to the helpless realization that no matter what choices I make, the results are the same. Terravox wins. The only discernible difference is whether or not the character I control lives to see it happen. I believe this to be the key achievement of the piece. It contends with a dystopian version of reality in which justice does not prevail. It is a version of reality that feels too close for comfort.

    Emmanuel College’s THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK leaves me with pointed questions: How do we prevent our nation from being dictated by fiscally incentivized corporate conglomerates? When will we hold our government accountable for the negligence to its citizens?

  2. Hi! Hello? Oh… um. I think you’re muted. Nope, can’t hear you. Yeah, still can’t. If you go down to the bottom of the call, the microphone button probably has a red slash through it right now. That means we can’t hear you. Click that, and you should be good.

    Hey! There you are.

    Oh, the sweet sounds of Zoom University. If you just read that and immediately felt the urge to rip your hair out, I see you, and so does the company of TO GATHER APART. The piece, devised by Nael Nacer and company at Suffolk University, gives a generation of collegiate theatre students a virtual safe haven to voice their frustrations, hopes, and fears in the face of the pandemic.

    The play centralizes around a weekly community Zoom session created for theatre students in universities across America. It is through these sessions that TO GATHER APART examines the human condition, how it metamorphosizes in an unprecedented time, and reminds us that connection to each other is not only still possible, but vital.

    First and foremost, it is worth noting the sheer scope of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC representation the play achieves. A major success of this production is its ability to amplify the voices of queer communities in every respect of the term. It champions an intersectionality that feels truly, finally representative of the demographics that comprise this generation.

    Each virtual meeting held by the students was established by identifying their names and pronouns of choice. It was a consistent, recurring modicum of respect that was reinforced consistently in the show, and left me wishing this behavior was practiced more in life.

    Along with this, the ensemble actively spoke on issues they faced as members of marginalized communities. A prime example of this is actor Vincent Douglass, who brings a profound sensitivity to the role of Zachary. Zachary expresses in a meeting that he had been misgendered that day. He mentions that it was the first time it had happened in a while, and though the transgression was mild, it still negatively impacted his self-confidence.

    Another example of a queer narrative in the work is represented by the character Melis, played viscerally by Anastasia (Taso) Bolkwadze. Bolkwadze’s performance illustrated an entire world of nuance to unpack. Her character, Melis, forgets to mute her microphone before taking a volatile phone call from her partner, Chloe. Melis struggles to hold herself together as her relationship crumbles under the pressures brought on by being forced to go long distance. She expresses her pain through music, poetry, and sometimes in outright anger. The range demonstrated in this character by Bolkwadze is one to watch.

    The subject of mental health comes into play frequently in this piece. As weeks go on, the students flitter through a smattering of mindfulness exercises. They vocalize their emotional weather reports, identify their rose, bud, and thorn for the day, and sometimes they simply join the call and talk about their interests.

    While the play mostly tackles the issue in an artful manner, there were a few moments I found particularly jarring. I had grounded myself so deeply in the play’s realism, that any moments in which the devised work strayed into a more abstract telling of the story, I felt an inherent disconnect. The most notable example of this is Alex’s dream sequence in the latter half of the piece.

    While there are a multitude of examples that grapple with mental health present in the show, the paradigm of self care and mindfulness takes place in a guided meditation led by the group’s fearless leader, Alex, played by actress Madylnn Bard. In a moment of grief, she blurts out, “Can we try something?” She asks everyone to shut their cameras off. The screen goes dark, and her voice softens. “Close your eyes.” I find myself following her lead. She proceeds to guide the group, and by extension, the viewer, through a visualization exercise that implores everyone to imagine their ideal version of the theatre. In this moment, the play has created a sort of magic. It has allowed the group of strangers viewing their work from across the region to gather apart.

    The most frustrating part of the production for me is not even an element of the work itself. It is a fifteen minute long window of virtual pre-show. In a medium by which the audience has control over when they view the production, it feels simply unnecessary to give the illusion of a theatre house filled with the canned sounds of ambient chatter and a symphony orchestra’s starting notes. And while I’m aware that this criticism may seem a bit granular, it truly reads to me as a disservice to a show I thoroughly enjoyed. It felt contradictory to the authenticity that the play’s ensemble did such a masterful job developing. While I strongly recommend you watch this work, I just as strongly recommend you jump to the fifteen-minute mark.

    TO GATHER APART succeeds when it bears its collective soul to the audience. It falls a bit short when it strays from that throughline; it drifts away from the beating heart that is central to the piece. Ultimately, watching this story unfold has been an act of catharsis. I laughed, I cried, I joyfully screamed when Gloria’s mic started working, but sadly, I have not yet tried to push the beds together to make a king sized super bed.

  3. FEATURE PIECE: NETWORK -Final Draft!

    THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK: A Comprehensive Guide from a Completionist Gamer

    It is 2021, and frankly, I am exhausted of the idea of “Zoom Theatre”. After a full year of adjusting to the new circumstances the pandemic forces us to reckon with, productions of all calibers still choose to ignore our shared reality. Theatres are closed. There is no raucous crowd. There is no symphony orchestra. Let’s be real. I’m at home, wearing a shirt that looks passably professional on camera with a pair of Darth Vader pajama pants to match. So why has there been such a staunch refusal to adapt?

    Luckily for me, (and everyone, really) Emmanuel College’s THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK has something different to say. The college theatre company comes to us with an offering: an immersive experience. By utilizing the famed choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, the production effectively marries the interactive nature of video games with the unique storytelling abilities of live theatre.

    Emmanuel College has developed a piece that could be classified as Japanese-visual-novel-meets-theatre-macabre-meets-dystopian-horror, and it all begins upon entry of the theater troupe’s web domain, ectheater.com. The glitchy, retro aesthetic, along with the viewer discretion advisory I’m greeted with, immediately tells me what kind of ride I’m in for.

    But before we dive in, let’s demystify a few things. First of all, what is theatre macabre?

    Basically, the phrase is traced back to “Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol”, which translates literally to “The Theatre of the Great Puppet”. It was a theater house in Paris that developed a series of dramatic productions designed to shock and terrify the audience with gruesome depictions of gore and death. It’s had a tremendous amount of influence on the way gore is presented in modern horror film. The Grand Guignol was the first theatre of its kind, drumming up an array of live macabre content.

    When you couple the theatre macabre with some key components of the Japanese visual novel, it becomes clear how the concepts are mutually beneficial.

    A common trope present in the visual novel is its featureless protagonist. This character serves as a blank-slate for the player to project onto as they navigate the game. However, sometimes the creators of the game won’t provide the stand-in. The game instead chooses to recognize the player as a character in the story. A critical component of NETWORK’s success lies in this presentational choice. The audience member has essentially been cast in the play, which gives them just as much of a role in the action as the ensemble.

    Now, after considering this first-person POV under the lens of the macabre moniker… are you ready to jump in?

    (There will be spooks and spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!)

    The virtual experience begins with an appeal from the genial CEO of Terravox, Ashton Arlot, played by Domenic Annand. He introduces us to the futuristic, dystopian version of America that is the world of the play. It is a world in which COVID continues to run rampant through the country, forcing its citizens to remain in an unrelenting quarantine.

    “We know you are scared, we know you are isolated, and we know you are alone,” he goads with saccharine sweet tonality. He informs us that Terravox has developed a special streaming service in which the player can interact with a “virtual companion” whose purpose is to comfort us while we remain in our terrifyingly dystopian level of isolation. “So what are you waiting for? Click away. And we’ll be here for you, because with Terravox, you’re never alone.”

    And thus, the corporate figurehead sends us off to peruse the lighthearted programming developed by his multimedia conglomerate.

    This is where the real gameplay comes in. The piece provides six routes to pick from, including a 1950’s aesthetic cooking show, two versions of a noir soap opera, an exercise program fresh from the 80’s, a Bob-Ross style paint along program, and a children’s show. This medium serves as a means to deliver NETWORK’s true story: a dystopian horror in which Terravox is attempting to completely eradicate the autonomy of the American people through the use of a chemically imbued beverage developed to control their minds.

    As you spend time with the program hosts, you have the ability to affect change in their dialogue by accepting or refusing to drink Refresh. Do you choose to succumb to the will of the dark haired, sultry woman with the flask full of Refresh? Or do you resist? Your answer will shift her tone toward you in the scenes ahead.

    And while your character in the play holds the ability to make choices, are you truly the one determining the fate of this story? Well, the short answer is, not really. Not actually.

    Upon completing the first playthrough, the mechanism of choice employed by NETWORK may seem a bit primitive to the seasoned gamer. After all, the only real choice the experience presents us is whether or not to drink the product Terravox is pedaling, Refresh. And while this choice does influence the tone of the character you’re speaking with, and unlock additional information pertinent to the narrative’s core plot, it ultimately doesn’t impact the fate of the American dystopia. However, the limitation of true choice in the piece plays into a vital facet of the horror game genre: the player’s lack of control.

    NETWORK artfully highlights the fact that in this universe, what we do is inconsequential. The conclusion of the player’s involvement, whether they live or die, does not alter the “true ending” of the piece. You are simply a pawn in a much larger narrative. Terravox’s corporate figurehead is still under the influence of chemical RE-42, present in Refresh. He is still manipulated into shooting himself, after which his mastermind of a secretary replaces him with another disposable cog in the Terravox machine.

    Overwhelmed by a sheer sense of helplessness upon reaching the ending, but simultaneously delighted by the inventive presentation of the show, I was eager to jump into my second runthrough. The benchmark of an effective choose-your-own-adventure tale is set by the player’s desire to discover more. I wanted to leave no rock unturned. Which route should I pick next? What insights will it give me into this complex dystopia? Should I replay the same program with different choices?

    Before I act on any of these impulses, I notice an irregularity in the website’s background. It appears as though someone has torn off a piece of the top right corner of the electric purple screen. So I drag the mouse over to the edge of the page, finding that my suspicions are correct. It’s clickable! I’m ecstatic because at this point, I know I’ve found the coveted Easter eggs.

    So, I click on the mysterious torn corner. The page I’m brought to has the word “confidential” all over it. It displays a list of hyperlinks to a variety of bonus files not mentioned in the main story. This includes campaign propaganda posters for Refresh, romantic correspondances from the story’s rebel love interests, Maeve and Charlie, scientific data generated from the RE-42 chemical trials, and much more.

    THEATRE MACABRE: NETWORK is a fully packed virtual theatre experience, with hours of content available to discover. Hopefully this helps you unearth a few more pieces of the narrative along the way.

  4. REVIEW: TO GATHER APART – Final Draft!

    “Hi! Hello? Oh… um. I think you’re muted. Nope, can’t hear you. Yeah, still can’t. If you go down to the bottom of the call, the microphone button probably has a red slash through it right now. That means we can’t hear you. Click that, and you should be good.”

    “Hey! There you are.”

    Oh, the sweet sounds of Zoom University. If you just read that and immediately felt the urge to rip your hair out, I see you, and so does the company of TO GATHER APART. This show, devised by Nael Nacer and company at Suffolk University, provokes you to explore that feeling of aggravation, along with the rest of the mixed bag of emotions you may be having in the pandemic.

    The play centers on a weekly community Zoom session created for theatre students across America. It is through these sessions that TO GATHER APART examines the human condition, how it metamorphosizes in an unprecedented time, and reminds us that connection to each other is not only still possible, but vital.

    The meetings are orchestrated by the group’s fearless leader, Alex. Alex is played by the equally fearless actor Madylnn Bard, who develops a character that upholds an admirable level of composure and grace throughout the work. Week by week, she leads discussions with a primary focus on fostering practices encouraging open communication and good mental health.

    The paradigm of self care and mindfulness that the show represents takes place in a guided meditation, beautifully conducted by Bard’s character. In a moment of grief, she blurts out, “Can we try something?” She asks everyone to shut their cameras off. The screen goes dark, and her voice softens. “Close your eyes,” she beckons. I find myself following her lead. She proceeds to guide the group, and by extension, the viewer, through a visualization exercise that implores everyone to imagine their ideal version of the theatre. In this moment, the play creates a sort of magic. It allows the group of strangers viewing their work from across the region to gather apart.

    For the most part, the play’s construction effectively weaves a narrative with an honesty that tugs on your heartstrings. However, the work develops a troubling habit of straying from its throughline. The piece, as a whole, is grounded in a compelling realism. This choice is highly effective in gaining the audience’s empathy. The moments in which the devised work strays into a more abstract telling of the story, it drifts away from the beating heart that is central to the piece.

    There are a few examples of this distracting abstraction from reality in the piece. The most jarring one occurs when the character Rudy, a proclaimed time traveller, bursts into the zoom call with an urgency that feels uncomfortably confused. It comes and goes without much valuable reference of clarification to it until the very end.

    An aspect of the show to be highlighted is the sheer level of actor capability. Each actor brings their unique voice to the ensemble piece, and the coalescence of these voices results in something remarkable. While the entire cast exhibits a cohesive strength, there are a few stand out performances that should be noted.

    A prime example of remarkable performance is realized by actor Vincent Douglass, who brings a profound sensitivity to the role of Zachary. The character is a beacon of light in the narrative, and this positive energy is amplified by Douglass’s tactful presentation of the role. Douglass’s character has much to unpack through the work, from difficult encounters that shake his confidence, to the gentle blossoming of a new relationship. In every situation he is faced with, Douglass plays Zachary with a freshness and honesty that is utterly compelling.

    Another example of an individual narrative beautifully played out in the work is represented by the character Melis, brought to life sharply by Anastasia (Taso) Bolkwadze. Bolkwadze’s performance illustrates an entire world of nuance to unpack. She draws the audience in by waxing poetic to the tune of prose by Tom Waits, and brings the audience home with the familiar melody of Mr. Rogers. The character’s artistry is fully realized in Bolkwadze’s understanding of how the media impacts the character’s emotional journey.

    It is also worth noting that the cast champions a diverse intersectionality of underrepresented voices, without the primary intention of the production being one of social activism. The cast’s diversity is a necessary addition to the field in terms of normalizing a high level of intersectional inclusivity.

    The most frustrating part of the production for me is not even an element of the play proper. It is a fifteen-minute-long window of virtual pre-show. In a medium by which the audience has control over when they view the production, it’s unnecessary to give the illusion of a theatre house filled with canned sounds of ambient chatter and a symphony orchestra’s starting notes. It feels contradictory to the authenticity that the play’s ensemble developed so masterfully.

    TO GATHER APART succeeds when it bears its collective soul to the audience. Watching this story unfold has been an act of catharsis. I laughed, I cried, I screamed when Gloria’s mic started working, but most importantly, I felt something real.

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