Let's Review: Was it a play or a movie? WoW Festival-goers know about Platonov

The set of Platanov. Will Bowen
The set of Platanov. Will Bowen

By Will Bowen

La Jolla Playhouse’s four-day WoW (Without Walls) Festival in October appears to have been a rousing triumph. Playhouse Managing Director Mike Rosenberg called it “an unqualified success,” adding 1,400 to 1,600 people visited the festival each of the four days, which was way more than expected. Playhouse Director of Education Steve McCormick said the festival was “awesome!”

One of the best of the 20-some performances was an experimental work called “Platonov” or “The Disinherited” (an adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s first play) written by MIT Theater & Music Department Chair Jay Scheib, who also directed it.

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The set of Platanov. Will Bowen

The play was preformed in a small, makeshift house built on the grass in front of Galbraith Hall on the UC San Diego campus near the “Stonehenge” Stuart Collection art piece. The audience was positioned on outdoor folding chairs in front of the stage

This exciting, daring, and at times threatening, play has to be classed as a grand example of innovation in the tradition of directors like Anne Bogart or Joseph Chaikin.

What was so unique was that it was both live theater and a movie at the same time. Scheib was right there on stage in the middle of the action with his actors filming them up-close with a hand-held video camera. The result was projected in real time on a 35-foot screen above the stage. The audience had an unparalled opportunity to compare and contrast the story as a play and as a movie.

Of course, the viewer’s eyes went back and forth between the real action on stage and the film above that was subtitled with the dialogue spoken below. It was like simultaneously being at Old Globe’s Shakespeare in the Park while attending a drive-in movie under the stars. The production made you think about why movies are so popular, while many theatrical companies struggle financially. Scheib reminded patrons that the New York City Opera cancelled its 2013-2014 season.

Audiences seem to like the larger-than- life images projected on the big screen. Maybe it’s because the images are so large (or the camera brings you in so close and focuses your attention so well) or maybe it’s the richness in the coloration or texture of the images that the camera provides.

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Actress Natalie Thomas

Scheib said our emotional involvement in the cinematic image is the kind of thing that prompted German theater great Bertolt Brecht to configure what he called “The Alienation Effect,” actions that make us aware that the play is not real life and that we are in a theater.

“Brecht said we want to get lost in the illusion that cinema provides ... but that obscures our vision of the real world reflected in the play. The technique of film and a play simultaneously is  like an alienation effect because it makes us aware of both mediums and prevents us from becoming emotionally lost in the story so we can better think through what is happening before us,” Scheib said.

But then Scheib seemed to contradict himself, when he added, “The whole point with this play is to make theater more like the movies. For live theater to survive in the future it must become more engaging ... this play was an experiment in that direction.

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