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Sophia Craig / Columbia Daily Spectator

Sprawled across YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom, the theater department's senior thesis festival showcased interdisciplinary theater at its most inventive.

The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” lyrics light up the bottom of the screen. Shadow puppets pack a suitcase. Johann Strauss takes over for Vera Lynn in a Doctor Strangelove-inspired closing montage. Sprawled across YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom, this is interdisciplinary theater at its most inventive.

On the first weekend of May, the Barnard theater department opened its annual senior thesis festival on a virtual stage. Theater majors shared their final projects in research, directing, and solo performance—all reimagined for a digital set. Actors became cinematographers and theater directors became filmmakers. Between experiments with audio-visual distortion and extreme close-ups to startle viewers, the performances created a kind of intimacy in isolation.

Among the showcased performances was “The Danube,” directed by Margot Gage, BC ’20; it tells a story of confinement even before the national shutdown scattered Gage’s actors across the country. Written by María Irene Fornés, the play is a language-learning love story between Paul and Eve, with the characters’ dialogue often interwoven with Hungarian language lessons. As Gage reimagined “The Danube” as a virtual language course, it feels at first like a three-day trial of Rosetta Stone underscored by Johann Strauss.

But Eve, portrayed by Abigail Duclos, BC ’23, tells us otherwise. Brimming with delicate anxiety, Duclos grapples with a world in which language barriers restrict communication to describing the weather and learning how to order fresh fruit. The show’s depiction of the frustrations around miscommunication was perhaps even more moving in an online format. As the play unfolds, Duclos’ anxiety—and the audience’s own—does not let up. Instead, the gentle and thematically appropriate “Blue Danube Waltz” buckles and distorts until it’s an apocalyptic static.

The play also throws the timely wrench of an unknown virus into its central love story. By fracturing the screen-stage and inverting the colors, Gage gave the impression of threatening the viewer with both a digital and physical virus.

Haoqi Xia, CC ’20, directed a psychedelic piece called “The Other Shore.” Written by Gao Xingjian, the play explores abstract interpersonal relationships in sections with titles like “I surrendered” and “I was Jesus Christ.” Xia and his design team used an on-screen collage to represent the deconstruction of relationships in society.

One scene featured the rearrangement of body parts, with hands and feet displayed in different boxes like a cut-up photograph. The issue of unity resurfaced again and again, both visually and thematically, as the performers shouted in the audience’s ears, overlapping chants and screams to represent the beginnings of mob mentality in the era of social distancing.

By not only choreographing the performers’ movements but also configuring the on-screen squares in which they appear, Xia depicted online relationships as far more tangled and easily distorted than their in-person equivalent.

Maggie Vlietstra, BC ’20, directed Enda Walsh’s “Disco Pigs.” The most cinematic piece in the showcase, Vlietstra and her team spliced the actors’ hand-held camerawork with mid-90s footage of various street-scenes and parties in pulsing technicolor, accompanied by an enviable playlist containing English synth-pop and, of course, disco.

Walsh’s script, which is set across the nightspots of Cork, Ireland, provides a window into the world of two teenage best friends nicknamed Runt (Jules Marino, CC ’22) and Pig (Tom Phelan, CC ’20). They translate their sometimes nonsensical dialogue through their raw, honest performances, connecting intimately across digital boundaries. The online medium allowed for the actors’ isolation to intensify an already otherworldly friendship.

“We make a world where Pig and Runt are king and queen,” Marino explained in an Irish accent. Through a split-screen, they’re not only staring at us—we’re also looking in at them.

Vlietstra created a show so cohesive and visually impressive that it is hard to believe it was not conceived for the screen from the get-go. Charged with Marino and Phelan’s performances, the production jolts between silly, childlike, and genuinely terrifying.

Saturday’s solo performance showcase featured the work of Grace Henning, BC ’20; Brian William Price, CC ’20; Selina Jiawen Zheng, CC ’20; and Kaleb Sells, CC ’20. Each student presented a short devised play drawn from sources as varied as Elizabeth Wurzel’s 1994 memoir “Prozac Nation,” first-hand histories of World War II, and interviews with recovering addicts.

Henning describes her piece “A Day in the Life” as walking the fine line between depression and comedy. The show is a half-awake exploration of isolation through found objects and film impressions, featuring Marlon Brando and what appeared to be a mask of John F. Kennedy.

Price reimagined his work ”Coffee with a Code Talker” as an online interview where he answered the audience’s unspoken questions. He described his experiences as a Navajo soldier on the Japanese front with an informal, reminiscing, and even grandfatherly air to the quiet soundtrack of detonating bombs.

Zheng’s “Forever” is a Tim Burton-inspired montage of hallucinatory graphics, dance, and monologues, featuring a holographic plastic set in the background that could be straight out of a Mika Rottenberg installation. Meanwhile, Sells took his play in a documentarian direction. In “The Eightball Cantata,” a series of interviews both interrupt and contextualize a highly theatrical musical number collaged from “Rent” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”

These seniors’ theses both remove the audience from and immerse the audience in isolation. As Henning put it, they confront us with a world in which one day, our greatest idea might be to “take a nap,” and the next, it is to invent new worlds as colorful as these.

Staff writer Sophie Craig can be contacted at sophie.craig@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

Barnard theater department Senior thesis festival Disco Pigs The Danube The Other Shore Sophie Craig
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