On March 11, 2020, I saw the Broadway revival of West Side Story. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, breathing the same air, marveling at an often confounding but equally exhilarating take on a classic musical. It felt like a thousand other nights I’d spent at the theater over the course of my career as a critic – except, of course, for the invisible, unspoken insurgent literally teeming through the air. COVID-19 was rampant in New York City, and within 24 hours, most of the live entertainment industry would be closed for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t see another in-person performance for more than a year.
My return to live theater looked very different from that heady last night on West 53rd Street. Instead of picking up a ticket from a press agent and shuffling into an orchestra seat, I pulled my Kia Sorento into a nondescript parking lot in North Philadelphia, with instructions to turn on my FM console and turn off my run lights. Instead of sharing physical space with strangers, I remained in my car for the majority of the performance, with only the quiet breath of my husband to remind me that I was actually out in the world. My KN95 face mask, which I didn’t even own in March 2020, remained perpetually on my lap.
This is how we’re doing theater in 2021 – at least for now. After experimenting with single-audience performances earlier this year in their production of Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby, where spectators watched an actor through the window of a residential home, EgoPo Classic Theater brings us as close to a communal experience as we can reasonably expect. The company has staged Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, an elliptical meditation on grief and guilt from 2000, for two-dozen or so cars per performance, adapting the creative flourishes they’re known for to the strange landscape of socially distanced theater. It might not be what you’re used to – or what you even want – but it’s a unique, occasionally rewarding experience.
After more than a year of staring at flat figures on static screens, seeing the three-dimensional figure of the Narrator (Walter DeShields) insinuate himself onto the makeshift playing area caused my heart to leap. An actor! Live in living color! That alone would be enough to make the effort worthwhile, but director Lane Savadove supplies a number of visually arresting moments. Although I find audience participation loathsome, the use of our vehicles’ headlights as ambient illumination – particularly for a play that deals with the aftermath of a devastating automobile accident – is a brilliant touch. Floating islands of set pieces (designed by Dirk Durossette) highlighted the surrealness of the occasion without being too arch. There is fine acting on display, particularly from the always wonderful Kirsten Quinn and newcomer Emilia Weiss, a student at Rowan University who makes a haunting impression as the Narrator’s spectral sister.
At the same time, there are elements that falter. This is partially due to the play itself, which is often pretentious in its literariness and not nearly as probing as it attempts to be. It is also, at its heart, an internal monologue, one meant to have a hypnotic, time-stopping effect. The distancing required by the production, and the pandemic, undercuts that. At moments when the Narrator should be drawing us in, he quite literally recedes, and the separation extends beyond the actual barrier of a windshield. If ever a work demanded black-box treatment, interiority and the sense of a deep-dive into the crevasse of a troubled mind, this is it. And though DeShields is a skilled and compelling actor, his performance lacks the magnetism that leaves an audience hanging onto every word for an hour or more.
Still, there are moments to savor – especially a coup de théâtre that closes the production, which I won’t spoil, but which briefly captures the ideal tone and style of the piece. The greatest recommending factor for Nocturne, though, is the ingenuity of an inventive troupe and the hesitant but hopeful return of in-person theater, in Philadelphia and beyond. It may not look like what we’re used to, but what does anymore? Honk your horn, flash your brights and drive home thinking of the better days ahead.
Nocturne continues through May 9. For more information, visit EgoPo’s website.