In These Immersive Shows, the Jury Is In (Your Home)

Last week I was called for jury duty. Twice. New York City has yet to resume in-person jury trials, but from a perch on my sofa, I could hear and assess one case involving the murder of an elderly woman and another concerning arson in a commercial building. These trials weren’t precisely real or even vaguely legal — and as both were Britain-based I doubt that I and my U.S. passport would have made it past voir dire. But I count each as an extrajudicial highlight in a week spent sampling new experiments in immersive theater and gaming. Verdicts follow.

When theaters shut down in March, many companies scrambled to make archived work available, organized Zoom-hosted readings or adapted productions to an online format. In those first bewildering weeks, proximity to any form of theater felt like a gift, if often the kind of gift — fancy hand soap, say — that you unwrap and then promptly throw into the back of some closet.

As lockdown weeks became lockdown months, the question of whether live theater could be made and shown remotely became moot. It could, with more content available than any sane person should stream.

But could online drama ever substitute for the in-person form? Here, doubt has seemed more reasonable. And yet theatermakers have spent these same months testing the varieties of interaction these platforms allow and which genres and narratives best suit an online setup. A few companies make strong cases for theater in its digital form.

I began with “The Evidence Chamber,” a coproduction from Fast Familiar, an interdisciplinary studio, and the Leverhulme Research Center for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Empaneled as an online jury, participants in any given performance sift through evidence and weigh recorded witness testimony as they consider guilt or acquittal in a murder case.

The jury setup is a brilliant one, not only because some places, like Alaska, are piloting grand jury proceedings via videoconference, but also because many of us already feel sequestered, dependent on online evidence and the occasional expert witness to understand the world around us.

In “The Evidence Chamber,” an actor playing a clerk of the court is present, but participants mostly create the drama themselves as they debate the case. (Think “Twelve Not So Angry Men and Women.”) The piece works both as theater and as an exploration of how laypeople understand and evaluate forensic evidence — here, DNA analysis and gait analysis, a systematic evaluation of an individual’s walk.

The case itself wasn’t complicated. My group — mostly white, mostly women, mostly English — began to vote unanimously about half an hour in. (We were gait skeptics.) Everyone involved seemed to take the task seriously, even as some of us clearly relied on information gleaned from cop show marathons. Toward the end, someone asked if any of us had actually served on a real murder jury. “I don’t think it’s this exciting,” a woman said.

A few days later, I again found myself murder-adjacent, during “Mystery at Boddy Mansion,” a friendly, schlocky dinner theater experience loosely based on the board game Clue. This being a pandemic, dinner was strictly D.I.Y. Assigned characters in advance, a costumed dozen of us met up in a Zoom room to reveal clues, ask leading questions and (in my case) take occasional bites of a lukewarm veggie burger. Actually most people drank their dinners. Wise.

Assigned “Madame Rouge,” a sanitation expert and Gypsy princess (“We prefer Romany,” I said as soon as I could), I wore a kerchief and avoided an accent. My cohort lacked such reservations. One of them, a preteen playing a flighty heiress, accessorized with a live chicken. That’s commitment to character. Few of us were skilled improvisers, which made the conversation awkward, though maybe less awkward than it might have been in person. The solution was perhaps too easy, at least for anyone who played Clue as a kid, though the friend I virtually brought along nearly (and wrongly) confessed. Her dinner was all daiquiris.

A game, an allegory, a screed and an exercise in behavioral economics, it had a lot going on, probably too much, which may have been the point. Your group may ultimately play for a cash prize, but ours managed to destroy the casino (the planet?) well before the final round.

Sahred From Source link Arts

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