Last March, I booked tickets to see “The Headlands,” a brand new play by Christopher Chen. A couple of days later, stay theater vanished like some terrible magic act. I by no means made it to that present. But now Chen, a high-concept playwright with a vertiginous strategy to dramatic construction, has created a brand new one, “Communion,” a intelligent and chilly digital wisp produced by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and skilled on Zoom. To see it, as in-person performances put together to return elsewhere, offers a dizzy form of symmetry.
“Communion,” directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring Stacy Ross, begins as so many latest exhibits have. A home supervisor greets the viewers (about 40 folks on the night time I attended), providing a short tutorial on cameras and mics and gallery view. Then Ross, a beloved Bay Area performer, seems, talking from what appears to be like like a basement. A pleasant basement. Ross, sporting a blazer, pigtails and a shrunken porkpie hat, has through-the-roof charisma, even in a Zoom window. This helped throughout the professional forma opening monologue, a pleasant acknowledgment of the bounds and potentialities of distant theater. “I always thought it would be interesting to do a Zoom show that somehow really took advantage of this strange intimacy this platform has,” Ross stated excitedly.
Like works by Will Eno and Lucas Hnath, Chen’s create a pressure between the concepts at play — right here, presence and absence, fact and lies, belief and manipulation — and the characters who inhabit them. There’s a lot intelligence in “Communion,” enhanced by Ross’s mischievous efficiency and MacKinnon’s smooth route. But the general impact is considerably stingy. It may need felt otherwise earlier in the pandemic. But at this level, most of us with working Wi-Fi have already thought lots about presence and absence. I’d commerce the conceptualism for one thing extra embracingly human.
In equity, “Communion” gives that, too. Late in the present, an unseen pressure kinds the viewers into breakout rooms, asking us to introduce ourselves and maybe focus on one of many prompts Chen had emailed earlier than the present — mainly, “In one or two sentences, can you describe a guiding principle you have?” Awkwardly after which with extra ease, we launched ourselves. One man shared a guideline, usually attributed to Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
The remainder of us had no rules. Still, we reveled in each other’s firm and in the expertise of sharing a murals collectively, regardless that we sat some four,000 miles aside. (In this, it resembles the latest efforts of teams like 600 Highwaymen.) It made me nostalgic for all these taken-for-granted foyer nods, that post-show race across the nook to debate the play at a protected distance, that feeling of constituting an viewers.
“Communion” ends with just a few conceptual switcheroos designed to make you query all the pieces you could have seen and heard. And I did. But these reveals dangle what individuals who love theater starvation for — connection, intimacy and sure, certain, communion — then snatch it again once more, like Tantalus on a video name. Did you droop your disbelief? Sucker.
I like my disbelief suspended. And if a 12 months of seeing exhibits from my bed room has taught me something, it’s that I’ll take theater the place I can discover it. Here, I’d find it much less in Chen’s forceful smarts and extra in these halting, unscripted breakout room moments, in a grid of individuals marking time with good will and small speak till we are able to actually, really be collectively once more.
Through June 27; act-sf.org.