Staff writer Mary Qiu tuned into CU Players’ two-part performance of Radio Island this weekend directed by Emma Gometz (CC ‘21) and produced by Diana Gregoire (CC ‘23) and Joanna Berkowitz (BC ‘22), and it convinced her that virtual theatre can be really good too.
When I tuned into Radio Island Part 1 on Friday night, I did not know what to expect. I had heard that Radio Island would be a play well-suited for the virtual medium, but I did know how it would be. Quickly, I came to understand that the narration, the condensed location, and the nature of the dialogues in this play really made it suited for the virtual platform.
Written by Liza Birkenmeier and directed by Emily Gometz, Radio Island live streamed on Youtube in two parts, with Part 1 taking place on Friday, November 20th at 7:30 p.m. EST and Part 2 taking place on Saturday at the same time. In lieu of an admission fee, the audience was encouraged to donate to the Northwest Network which provides support and services to the LGBT community.
The play follows Ellen (Monique Rangell-Onwuegbuzia CC ‘22) who returns to her childhood home to look after her injured mother Paula (Sydney Gerlach BC ‘24) after inviting her girlfriend Rory (AJ McDougall CC ‘22) to come too.
While navigating these tense dynamics at home and dealing with the lurking presence of her abusive father, Ellen takes on a job to negotiate a hostage crisis of a hijacked oil ship in the Gulf of Aden. Both storylines are very high-stakes and attention gripping, with the imminent threat of Ellen’s father inching closer and the hostage situation escalating throughout the play.
While the events seemed distant and surreal, the characters and the conversations, especially the awkwardness and the pauses in the dialogues, contrastingly felt very real. Paula clearly loves Ellen, yet her misguided words and feelings about Ellen’s sexuality indicate their distance. Ellen and Rory both know they love each other, yet Ellen’s reluctance to elaborate on her father’s history and Rory’s inability to accommodate Ellen break them up. Despite resolving the hostage crisis successfully, Ellen feels morose about the deaths of the captain and the Contact Man (Jalen Ford CC ‘23). To me, Radio Island is a mediation on the flaws of communication and its failures to convey the conflicting priorities and ambivalent feelings we hold.
I thought the decision to opt for a Youtube livestream, instead of a live Zoom performance, was an effective one, as it allowed for more control over what the audience could see, resulting in richer, smoother sound and visual effects, while retaining the live element of theatre. In particular, Alli Salwen BC ‘21’s wonderful sound design captured the ominous atmosphere, underscoring the tense ambience. The layered and well-transitioned sounds of water droplets, clock ticking, instrumental score, and coyote calls that underlie most of the play accentuate the strained tones of conversations and facilitate the transition between screens.
The lighting, too, was consistently dim across the cast and created an eerie atmosphere. The use of contrast, light and shadows, in particular, gave characterization to the Contact Man, whose face was mostly obscured by shadows. These design elements all show a meticulous attention to detail and an unwillingness to compromise the technical elements of theatre on the virtual platform.
Gometz’s masterful direction also included strong and specific directorial decisions that made the play very engaging. Most striking of these choices is the decision to have separate camera perspectives devoted to highlighting specific actions. The “knife fancam” and features of the chorus quietly eating spaghetti both caused quite a stir among the audience chat box. These zoom-ins of prop actions contributed to an otherworldly feeling to the play, highlighting the dissociative quality between the characters and their actions.
The acting choices demonstrated a similar attention to detail, featuring a meticulous exploration of angle and character choices.The camera angles and levels varied greatly from character to character and scene to scene—camera angles from the floor facing the profile, diagonally placed on a table facing upfront, or up close and below the face. The actors of Radio Island also manage to deftly avoid what I consider to be the trap of virtual theatre— the lack of movement.
Rangell-Onwuegbuzia and McDougall were especially dynamic in their movements, walking away and to the camera, unrestrained and undaunted by the limited space they have and using their whole bodies to create a visually interesting performance. I found the animated performance from Gerlach compelling too, and her sincerity sometimes gave her Paula’s misguided and homophobic lines about Ellen’s sexuality humorous tones.
I have no doubt that the impressive and meticulous choices took a lot of time and painstaking effort to coordinate in order to present such an interesting and consistent work of virtual theatre. In the Director’s Note of the program, Gometz writes, “I didn’t want this year’s show to feel like a concession, because we’ve already all conceded so much.” I want to assure that Radio Island in no way felt like a concession. The unwillingness to sacrifice the technical and theatrical quality and choices was clear, and it gave me hope that virtually theatre can truly, honestly be worth watching.
Disclaimer: Bwog Staff Writer Sydney Gerlach was an actress in Radio Island. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this review.
Poster via Kristoff Smith CC ‘22