Showstopper Virtual Play Series Wows at New Rep
Like many other events and in-person activities, live theatrical performances have mostly come to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. But that hasn’t stopped the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown from finding new ways to showcase innovative productions during unprecedented times.
The latest dose of virtual programming from the New Rep is the Showstopper Virtual Play Series, which features the world premieres of two plays by two female playwrights of color: A Very Herrera Holiday by Alexis Scheer and [keyp-ing] by Miranda Austen ADEkoje.
The two shows are very different in terms of tone, which made the emotional impact of each individual play all the more obvious.
A Very Herrera Holiday is a dark comedy about a lifestyle blogger and social media influencer hosting an online holiday craft workshop. Even with the show’s dark and eerie undertones, it was clear that this show was meant to be a lighthearted comedy.
Emma Herrera, the main character, was a prototype of the sickeningly sweet and artificially positive social media influencer that’s becoming more and more popular in the present day. There were a number of observational jokes tied to how we use social media—like how she met her husband on a dating app after she asked her for nudes, or the ever-popular trend of men holding fish in their Tinder pictures. Even when the show started to take a dark turn, the comedic tone was never lost.
[keyp-ing], on the other hand, is much more serious in tone. The play centers on Monica, a freelance commercial producer who vents on an Instagram live about her frustrations related to working with a client while waiting for her film crew (comprised entirely of Black men) to return from a COVID rapid testing center in the suburbs.
The play serves as an intimate, chilling, and deeply emotional look into the day to day effects of white supremacy on Black individuals. It’s incredibly timely for the current social climate and forces audience members to wrestle with realities that others live with every single day. I think it would be impossible to finish watching [keyp-ing] without feeling emotionally affected in some way.
And the emotional weight was even more effective because it was shown after the more lighthearted A Very Herrera Holiday. There’s a chance neither show would have been as effective if they were shown in the reverse order.
The actresses play a huge role in the emotional effectiveness of both shows as well. Each play only features one character monologuing to an unseen audience, and the actresses’ abilities to carry their shows by themselves with no others to play off of should not be understated.
Amanda Figueroa, who played Emma in A Very Herrera Holiday, was able to perfectly nail the oddly specific social media influencer type personality. And beyond that, she was able to portray a more complex version of this archetype that nearly everyone sees on their newsfeed nowadays: as the show went on, the perfect influencer persona started to chip away piece by piece as the audience learned more and more about her. It feels reminiscent of actual influencers who seem flawless until it’s revealed that they have some skeletons in their closet. Figueroa handled this descent away from perfection and into insanity with mastery.
Jasmine M. Rush played Monica in [keyp-ing], and her ability to convey an emotionally complex story through a virtual platform was outstanding. Throughout the play’s runtime, the audience experiences Monica go through a range of different emotions: frustration, anger, fear, guilt, sadness. The fluidity with which Rush changed through these different emotions felt incredibly authentic. Her emotional execution was one of the most effective parts of the show. The audience had no choice but to feel what she was feeling.
It’s also worth noting that both shows did a phenomenal job working on a virtual platform in creative ways. With the landscape of theatre shifting towards virtual as restrictions on large gatherings continue, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply videoing stage productions. Not that there’s anything wrong with a solid pro-shot from time to time, but there’s much more that can be done with virtual theatre.
Both shows were based on the premise of their main character live streaming and talking to an audience, with one taking place on a Zoom call and the other taking place on an Instagram Live stream. These creative decisions make the virtual format feel more natural, with the actresses in both shows talking directly to the camera as if the audience is watching their Zoom meeting or Instagram Live.
It also opens the door for audience interaction opportunities that are not available through in person productions. The Showcase was shown on a Zoom webinar, and throughout the shows the audience members were encouraged to engage with the show by posting in the chat box. Audience members reacted to Emma Herrera’s sometimes questionable remarks and offered suggestions to Monica when prompted. It was an effective way to add something new and exciting to the prospect of virtual theatre, which is important considering that the return to live performance is still unclear.
Overall, New Rep’s Showstopper Virtual Play Series should be considered the gold standard for how to effectively do virtual theatre.
The Showstopper Virtual Play Series plays until mid-December. For more information and tickets, visit: https://www.newrep.org/productions/showstopper-virtual-plays/
*This article originally appeared on Theatre Talk Boston.