One of the few good things you can say about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has proven to be a creative trigger for theater companies that simply cannot perform actual shows for physically present audiences.
Several theaters in town have turned to “virtual” productions, which allow audiences to stream video versions of what might have been live shows in pre-pandemic days. The upside: People can watch productions from their computers, tablets or smart TVs. The results have ranged from a stately four-actor version of “A Christmas Carol” from KC Rep; several slick, PBS-quality musical reviews from MTH; an innovative multi-character play about young people presented in a Zoom-like format by the Coterie; and the Lyric Opera’s affecting version of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” in which the characters were represented by puppets.
I have now seen two virtual shows produced by the Unicorn Theatre, both of which show how singular these productions can be. My take: The Unicorn has found a way to make limited production budgets a strength by embracing visual presentations that are unlike anything you’ll see at other local theater companies. The Unicorn makes the most of digital technology while relying on committed work from talented actors.
The current virtual show is “RED BIKE,” a play by Caridad Svich that has received several live productions around the country. After going online and glimpsing a few of those productions, I’m glad the Unicorn produced this as a virtual show. Svich’s play isn’t about realism. It’s more of a dreamscape described from the point of view of an 11-year-old kid as he/she explores the limits of a small town. The Unicorn show, directed by Sidonie Garrett, employs digital editing effects that underscore the surrealistic nature of the play. It also minimizes the one-act script’s weak points.
The super-charismatic Chioma Anyanwu plays the unnamed bike rider. And although the play was written to be performed by up to four actors, Anyanwu is the whole show. And that’s a good thing. Anyanwu has always performed with a perpetual gleam in her eyes but her skill allows her to shift from anger to sadness to fear to amusement within the space of a few seconds. This time she plays multiple characters, including a garrulous old bus driver, the kid’s parents, a vaguely menacing investor who owns half the town. But mainly she’s the young bike rider, full of observations, questions and fear-inducing awareness.
The playwright embeds philosophical questions in a meandering narrative that are never articulated clearly enough to engage and ultimately remain unanswered. Even so, the play takes you on a journey and pulls you in as the young protagonist grapples with the meaning of life.
This is a green-screen show in which Anyanwu is shot from various angles on or near her bike and then superimposed on physical backgrounds that are sometimes realistic, sometimes not, but for the most part consists of filtered, desaturated physical locations.
Much of the show’s strength goes to Conor Tierney, who is credited as the director of photography and editor. He sets a quick pace while avoiding repetitive visual backgrounds. He never let us get bored. There’s also a music score by an uncredited composer that imbues the writing and Anyanwu’s performance with subtle shifts in tone.
If Svich’s play leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied, you can take pleasure in this production’s mesmerizing visual style and Anyanwu’s glowing performance.
“RED BIKE” is available for streaming through Feb. 21. Visit www.unicorntheatre.org for more information.