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Theater review by Helen Shaw
When something flickers, even at the edge of awareness, our hindbrain forces us to look at it. We're all still twitchy from spending millennia on the African grasslands, so it's difficult not to pay attention to a screen as it flashes, imperceptibly, through images and blackness. We're wired for alertness. This is why you can't ignore TVs in bars, and it's also why video on stage so frequently overwhelms the live elements around it. Sometimes theatrical components compete with the lights and screens; sometimes the tension is interesting or valuable. But in the case of the multimedia CasablancaBox at HERE, the physical production simply can't put up enough of a fight.
Playwright Sara Farrington and director/video designer Reid Farrington have made CasablancaBox as a sort of “exploded view” engineering diagram of the classic Casablanca, in which we see both the finished 1942 film (projected onto moving muslin flats and mesh handheld screens) and the action of filming those scenes. Actors play not only Humphrey Bogart (Roger Casey), Ingrid Bergman (Catherine Gowl) and Peter Lorre (Rob Hille), but also director Michael Curtiz (Kevin R. Free) and Mayo Methot (Erin Treadway), Bogart's increasingly distraught wife. A cast of 16, dressed in '40s flat caps, hustle props and lights across the tiny HERE stage. We're on the hectic Warner Brothers lot, though we sometimes also glimpse private moments, like bit players (who were often refugees from WWII) kvetching about their roles. The scrambling grips hold poster-size screens in front of actors' faces, so we see and hear the live performer moving behind it, replicating the shot we see from the real film.
As a visual object, CasablancaBox has moments of beauty. Lighting designer Laura Mroczkowski uses blackness as well as she uses light; sound engineer Travis Wright deserves his own round of applause. Reid Farrington is a past master at projection work, and as always, it's precise and glowing. But he's less deft with the non-pixelated performers. Sara Farrington has frequently written them scenes that seem nearly impossible to play—like an actor portraying two men simultaneously (this is accidentally comic), or sudden, devastated refugee monologues that sound ridiculous inside the piece's generally farcical mode.
Still, there are moments: Methot and Casey act a painful scene together beautifully; Gowl and Casey achieve some their models' legendary chemistry. But for the most part, the live elements swing among tonalities and genres—many of which are too broadly delivered—and the performers fade beside the film fragments around them. How could they not? Every screen is alive with clips from Casablanca, and that ain't exactly a hill of beans.
HERE. By Sara Farrington. Directed by Reid Farrington. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through April 29.
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