Actors in “Brainstorm” include (left to right, top to bottom): Shannon Mastel (as Isabella), Marisa B. Tejeda (as LK), JT Nagle (Clint), Sarah Ann Leahy (Samantha), Franklin Wagner (Michael), Meredith Noël (Tyler), Hiếu Ngọc Bùi (Spencer), Declan Franey (Jude). (Coterie)
Each year since 1992 the Coterie has teamed up with UMKC Theatre for a coproduction that pools resources and takes advantage of graduate and under-graduate students in the school’s theater program.
Last year the result was a sobering production of “The White Rose: We Defied Hitler,” which told the story of young Sophie Scholl, who was caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets during World War II before being tried and eventually executed.
That show, mind you, was a pre-pandemic production and could be performed by actors in close proximity to each other and the audience. This year, however, is a whole new ball game.
The current virtual show is “Brainstorm: Inside the Life of the Teenage Mind,” a collaborative venture that employs a Zoom-like format to allow a peak inside the lives of a group of adolescents, 13 to 18 years old. In the process, we learn a bit about the science behind developing young brains and gain some insight into why young people do what they do and how they see the world. Bottom line: It’s all about brain chemistry.
The show was written by By Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three — a young-audiences theater company in London that encourages theaters to “make your own” version of the show, which is what the Coterie has done. Directed by Amanda Kibler, the Coterie’s director of education, the show is premised on a multi-person conversation between kids on a Zoom hookup.
The teens are played by the UMKC actors, who aren’t actually teenagers, but who are young enough and talented enough to sell the idea.
Each character is allowed an autobiographical pitch on their relationships with friends and parents and a perspective on the annoyances and challenges that give life meaning. Their relationships with parents who aren’t necessarily sympathetic to a youth’s hopes, dreams and frustrations are also part of the mix. In one section, the young actors play the parents.
The multi-ethnic characters’ interests and obsessions include sports, makeup, music, and computer games. One is a school mascot. Another wants to be a pro soccer player. Yet another hopes to become a professional computer gamer. One kid values going hunting with his dad.
The show is sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, and at its best offers what appears to be a credible portrait of where kids are in this moment. The young actors fill the screen with commitment, talent and a clear dedication to authenticity.
Also streaming is the Coterie’s production of “Electric Poe,” which was staged in September and October at Union Cemetery. The socially-distanced production was essentially a sequel to a similar Coterie show in 2009 which knitted together several Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems performed by actor Bruce Roach with live musical accompaniment by electric guitarist Scott “Rex” Hobart.
The digital version of the 2020 production features actor R.H. Wilhoit performing two Poe stories not included in the earlier production — “The Premature Burial” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Adapted and directed by Jeff Church, the outdoor show, produced in partnership with the Union Cemetery Historical Society, showcases Wilhoit’s nuanced intensity as he makes the horror palpable while finding subtle strains of humor that Poe is rarely given credit for.
Hobart is part of this show, too, and his music — disorienting, dissonant and, yes, macabre — adds a visceral quality that enhances the inherently morbid material. Towards the end, he appears in a cape and a grisly mask as Death, pushing Wilhoit as Prince Prospero to his inevitable fate.
In a pandemic, outdoor shows are a reasonable response by theater artists who want to work and perform for real people — even if it’s at a safe social distance.
Something tells me we can expect to see quite a bit of outdoor theater this spring and summer.
“Electric Poe” is currently streaming. “Brainstorm” is streaming through Feb. 7, although the run could be extended. The Coterie is also streaming the Mesner Puppets production of “The Snowy Day” through Feb. 28. For more information, go to www.thecoterie.org.