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PTC’s ‘Flyin’ Solo’ boldly goes to the virtual frontier

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BANGOR - A little rocket science keeps theatre alive. 

Penobscot Theatre Company continues to innovate to fulfill its artistic mission in the face of the pandemic. “Flyin’ Solo,” the latest offering in the company’s “Digitus Theatrum” 47th season, combines original works and technical know-how to make possible a live-to-your-home production.  

The first feat was the creation of twelve new monologues, written by the actors themselves. Susan Leslie and Parker Mills of The Village Acting Studio of Los Angeles worked with the PTC team to modify a version of their course, “Performing Solo,” as the basis for these original works. The cast met with the instructors to develop their pieces, inspired by a single word (either “Hope” or “Faith,”) and limited to only 1200 more. 

Leslie and Mills maintain in their promotional material that this process strengthens any actor’s ability to portray characters, “because once you can effectively tell your own story, you can tell anyone's.” This theory is plausible, but just how successful is this gambit of personal vulnerability in practice? “As actors, we are used to hiding behind imaginary characters, in imaginary worlds . . . now we would be the characters,” intone the performers in the trailer video for “Flyin’ Solo.” Even they seem to suggest some skepticism as to how they might pull this off. 

Fans of The Moth’s “StorySLAM,” World’s “Stories from the Stage” or even PechaKucha Night will find something to love here. Cadences of stand-up comedy, slam poetry and Spalding Gray combine to highlight moments of joy and poignance in each performer’s life.  

The beauty of any good anthology is the variety contained within. Pieces are performed by familiar PTC veterans and new faces; by performers in Bangor and those farther afield. Many pieces touch on the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic that have forced the production into this format, but many could exist in a world blithely unaware of the specific connotation of “social distance.” 

St. Paul believed that “faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” and remarkably, having “faith” and “hope” as their explicit inspirations, it is love that wins the day as the through-line of both casts:  the love between parent and child, the love burgeoning for romantic partners and the love for oneself, hard-won by experience, are all repeating motifs. Often, the greatest challenges to faith or hope appear to occur when these loves are threatened or tenuous. Often, these stories feature such heartache that the viewer is shocked to remember that the story witnessed is true.  

Each piece is remarkable, but of particular note were these monologues that represented how wide the range of this project could span:  Orlando Bishop’s “Life is a Marathon,” a moving distillation of his experience of 2020 with lyrical precision; Zakaria “Assasi” Allaf’s “Travel While Syrian,” a story so harrowing it felt like an early draft of a novel-length memoir; Julie Arnold Lisnet’s “The Journey Home,” equal parts raucous yarn and elegiac tribute; and Ben Layman’s “First Kiss,” gleefully conversational with plaintive, literary contrasts.

Among the rest of the pieces, you will find wistful memories from Jenny Hart and Christie Robinson that are compellingly bolstered by the use of their respective settings; tales of coming of age by Dennis Price and AJ Mooney that feature striking use of sound; charming bookends showing how Ira Kramer and Grace Livingston Kramer weather their epic challenges together; and witty, writerly explorations of self crafted by Jeri Misler and the Edge’s own Allen Adams.  

The two-cast model is an interesting feature for audiences to explore. A single ticket purchase can be used for admission at one performance for each cast – plan to reserve both nights when you contact the box office. It would be difficult indeed to determine by what metric you would decide to watch one cast over another, so, thankfully, no patron has to choose.

Seeing theatre in this new format does raise some interesting questions. For example:  What is the impact of streaming these performances live, versus streaming an edited, pre-recorded performance? What was the experience of each actor, reciting live but receiving no feedback from the audience? Certainly the technical achievements of cueing and blending projections, animations and sound effects with live feeds are not to be overlooked.  It is a keen demonstration of what this medium can do; and in many moments, the technical team, led by John Siedenberg and Reed Davis, achieve such seamless success, it might be easy to take it for granted. This live effort is very welcome in a year where the magic of audiences gathering for real-time experiences is rare; theatre produced in the moment is worth celebrating, even if we can’t all be in the same room. 

The preshow feed features some cast interviews that address the inspirations and challenges for the participants. Be sure to log on to the stream early to appreciate some of these behind-the-scenes insights. (You may also want to utilize this time to be able to troubleshoot any technological issues posed by your own wi-fi or device.) 

Are the monologists in “Flyin’ Solo” now aware of the power of “being” the character?  Only they can say.  As viewers, however, we are conclusively reminded that everyone has a powerful story. By using art to develop empathy, no one is ever truly alone.  

(“Flyin’ Solo” is available for live remote viewing through Sunday, February 7th; for more information, visit penobscottheatre.org.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 January 2021 08:30

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