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Julian Oquendo

Shattered Space: Between Zoom and film, creating a new theatrical experience

The text "Shattered Space: Online Interactive Theatre" is set in a futuristic font and set against a galaxy background.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published June 16, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

A new company is launching audiences into space with an exciting confluence of new technology and theatre. In Shattered Space by The Scattered Players, audiences take on the role of Star Jockeys aboard a spaceship which travels through a solar system visiting different planets on the verge of a major cataclysmic event.

The concept of Shattered Space, and the sophisticated programming underlying it, is a promising harbinger of what’s to come as people like Shattered Space Lead Engineer Chris Uehlinger continue to create new digital theatrical experiences.

Shattered Space is very impressive work. How did you achieve it?

Chris Uehlinger: … the 2 big web technologies that underlie this project (the WebRTC streaming stuff and the WebGL 3D stuff) are “both shallow and deep”. To truly understand WebRTC you’d need to do a deep dive on the history of streaming protocols, VoIP and telecommunications, but you can also follow a simple tutorial and learn how to use the user’s webcam and microphone in a web app pretty easily. You can (and many people do) spend years learning how to build beautiful worlds with 3D, but you can also get surprisingly far by just following the tutorials on the ThreeJS website and then looking through their open source examples for things you’d like to use in a project. These topics both look unapproachable from a distance, but once you’ve got a single foot in the door they can feel very empowering in terms of the kinds of things they let you create.

How long has your team been working on this? 

In early March (as all my spring shows were getting cancelled) I approached Lance (Bankerd), Matt (Payne) and Ben (Abraham) with the idea of doing a fully online immersive show. I was inspired by a recent immersive show I’d seen by Submersive Productions in Baltimore called “See Also”, and it had gotten me thinking about having a show with a non-linear story that the audience can explore in any order.

How long did it take you to program, design the ships, create a working system, etc?

It’s been about 3 months of work, and while a lot of it involved things I’d done before, a lot of it was happening at a new scale. For instance, I’d prototyped a video conferencing app at my day job, but never built one for a production product. This app has to work immediately on whatever device the audience members want to use, which meant we not only had to build a video conferencing app, but we needed an admin dashboard with real-time reporting of errors and audience connection issues.

I’ve got to shout out to our Stage Manager Liz Richardson, Marketing Director Donna Ibale, and Marketing Intern Mark Uehlinger (my brother) who are our crack tech support team. As each show is about to begin, we’re all on a Zoom call monitoring the company email account, the error logs, and other metrics to make sure everyone who bought a ticket is able to get in and isn’t having issues with their microphone and camera. They’ve gotten really good at finding patterns where certain errors can be solved quickly with certain solutions, and to the extent this show successfully runs, it’s down to their diligent efforts behind the scenes.

The 3D models of the ships and stations were mostly purchased from CGTrader (mostly chosen by Lance based on the visions put forward by the devisers), the planet materials were designed using an awesome open source tool by Rye Tyrell that creates procedurally generated planet materials based on a whole bunch of parameters. Certain parts like the “Cosmic Rapids effect”, the Ansible and the blue AI face were built by me whole cloth, and in a perfect world I would’ve liked to work exclusively with custom 3D assets. But given our limited time and resources, building 21 custom models wasn’t in the cards for this show.

What was training like with the actors?

The first rehearsals were on Zoom, since I was still building the app deep into the rehearsal period. The cast was split into 5 rehearsal groups for a lot of the process, and on one particular week we brought the groups into the app during their rehearsal time so they could see what the actor experience would be like. We collected feedback and iterated based on that to make sure the app would work with each person’s setup.

For instance, many of our actors are using mobile phones for their performance, so both the audience and actor apps have to work on mobile, and have almost all of the same features as the desktop versions. We also have a “headless” version of the actor app without the audio/video stuff that some actors use to look at the ship’s chat, inventory, etc. All of this came from having a tight iteration loop where we sought actor feedback and responded to it quickly, sometimes within a day.

I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to the actors here: They were patient, understanding, and quick to adapt to a platform that was changing under their feet every day. This kind of tech can only work if folks on the artistic side trust the folks on the technical side, and us folks on the technical side have to earn that trust by holding ourselves to a high standard of quality and accountability.

How do you see this kind of technology affecting local theatre going forward?

We’re going to be in quarantine for a while, and it’s going to be extremely rough for local theatre. But the good news is that people still want theatre if we can find ways to bring it to them.

I’ve seen a lot of people using Zoom to put on productions of existing plays, and I think that is a totally valid choice. But I also feel like when you take normal linear theatre and move it from the real world to digital, it starts to blur the line between theatre and film. At a certain point, if we want to do film we have to get good at cinematography, editing and the other skills that make good indie film good.

If we want to be different from film, we have to do what film can’t do, and make something that is undeniably live. That’s not easy: Most of the current canon of plays weren’t built for this at all, and the technical tools available are still rough. Shattered Space required a humongous technical effort, and is not something many companies can probably reproduce. I’ve seen folks like the Pandemic Players in Baltimore use Zoom and some other apps (which hide the Zoom UI) to put on shows that play with the videoconference medium in clever and thoughtful ways. I feel like there’s a middle ground that combines the nonlinear storytelling of a show like Shattered Space with a slightly modified off-the-shelf video conferencing app (like the Pandemic Players use) to allow more companies to put on shows like this.

And if they can, they may find (like we have) that they are no longer really “local” theatre. Although most of our cast is Baltimore-based, we have some folks in Boston, New York and Florida in this show, and we’ve had audience members from other continents. We could see a real flattening of the theatre economy, where good local work starts getting international recognition. And if that’s how things play out, that would be really exciting.

What if other producers want to replicate this experience, or build projects like this?

My plan is to open source the code when we’re done. If someone else has the technical know-how to deploy servers and get this thing running, I’d like to give them a good starting point. But the codebase for this show has a ton of duct tape, vestigial parts that no longer do anything, workarounds for the different ways Chrome and Safari handle audio/video stuff and weird tie-ins to the ARKit app that I’m using for the AI motion-capture stuff. And so it won’t be an easy plug-and-play kind of thing.

Now, if anyone in the web tech world wants to help the theatre world, this would be a great opportunity to do so. It’s hard to find folks with the kind of streaming tech expertise needed to build tools like this, but a few folks working together on an open source solution for this would probably help a lot of people out. If anyone has the desire and the time (a lot of time) to help, feel free to contact me via chris dot uehlinger at gmail.

What can we expect from The Scattered Players next?

We’ve got a lot of ideas for similarly nonlinear immersive shows, some of them specifically kid-oriented, some of them exploring different genres or mechanics. Right now our focus is on making Shattered Space successful, but in a month or so we’ll probably be able to talk more about what’s going to happen in the fall. Stay tuned!

comedy series Rebecca and Becca in Space addresses isolation in the age of covid

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published May 22, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

In the early days of regional stay-at-home orders, theatre artists Rebecca Ballinger and Rebecca Wahls were not ones to waste any time. They secured the equipment they would need: some quick decorations and the FaceTime app on their phones, and produced a series of very funny shorts.

A few weeks later, their 9 episode mini-series, Rebecca and Becca in Space, is available on YouTube for a quick binge (most episodes are under 5 minutes), another example of how local artists continue to produce work during the crisis.

The web series, set in 2033, features two astronauts stranded in space after the government pulls the plug on their research program. With no means of returning to Earth and isolated on their respective space stations, they do what any resilient astronauts would do: they live-steam their games of truth or dare.

“My favorite joke is when Rebecca’s character thinks everybody can shove their fist in their mouths,” Ballinger says during an interview with DC Theatre Scene, “and realizes it’s not true.”

“Watch till the end of the credits,” Wahls adds.

The script, written by both Ballinger and Wahls, started in 2019 and revisited this year, began from a simple premise.

“We wrote a number of sketches,” Wahls says. “Then we did a brainstorm exercise where we wrote a list of everything  we wanted to be when we grew up. And we both had ‘ASTRONAUT’ at the top of our list.”

The series is one of a number of projects funded by George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Mason Arts At Home. Their program has been offering a series of live-streamed and recorded performances since early April.

For Ballinger and Wahls, the importance of producing the series helped add a much needed routine to their new normal.

“Honestly, those two hours really helped because we started filming this, like right when everything was shutting down and the stress was super high,” Ballinger says. “I could go sit on the floor of my closet [and film] for two hours every night. It really helped ground me in the normal of rehearsing and there was a structure.”

Ballinger and Wahls also hosted a live Q & A session, in character, after their show premiered. Ballinger recounts one of the submitted questions relating on how to deal with isolation in space.

“The most important lesson I have learned in space… It can be really hard to be by yourself all the time,” Wahls answered during the livestream, “If you can create ways to connect with other people, that can make all the difference. Even if you feel alone, you’re not alone.”

The series ends on a positive note, their “Christmas Special” (spoilers) suggesting a return home for the astronauts.

“When we were talking about this, before the pandemic happened, we were [considering] if at the end of this season we find out that we’re stuck forever? And then the next season, we’re like really dealing with an existential crisis,” Ballinger shares.

“We ended up knowing people didn’t want that right now. People want help. And so that’s why we wrote a Christmas special to wrap up the season, just to kind of give a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel to these characters.”

Rebecca Wahls is currently pursuing her MFA in directing at Carnegie Mellon University. Rebecca Ballinger remains in the DC area, and looks forward to her next performance with Monumental Theatre.

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards go virtual

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published May 19, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

On Monday, May 18, the night when the DC area theatre community would have been celebrating the 2020 Helen Hayes Awards at The Anthem, honoring theatre excellence in area productions for 2019, theatreWashington took to its Facebook page to announce that the celebration will go on as a virtual event.

The move comes amidst a slow and uncertain reopening of the greater Washington area as state governors and mayors propose the reopening of their respective jurisdictions, for which social distancing measures and venue capacity limits remain in place.

“We have reached the decision to move the celebration online as a completely virtual event, foregoing an in-person event in late summer,” theatreWashington wrote on its Facebook page, “and will present the Helen Hayes Awards, open to everyone, at a date to be announced soon.”

DCTS confirmed with Amy Austin, President and CEO of theatreWashington, that the event is coming together now and will take place this summer.

“It is also important to us to preserve the tradition and prestige of the Helen Hayes Awards. We want the virtual ceremony to be joyful–to find beauty, comfort, reflection, and inspiration in each other and in our art,” the Facebook announcement continued.

“We’ve heard great feedback and ideas and we’re in the middle of the deliberative process of re-shaping the event.” Austin confirmed that the show will retain its original co-hosts, Felicia Curry (2018 recipient and 2020 nominee) and Naomi Jacobson (13 time nominee and two-time recipient).

“First and foremost,” the Facebook announcement continued “we are committed to allocating as many resources as possible in direct support to our community as we face the uncertainty ahead.” A signature program for theatreWashington has been its support all theatremakers in need through the Taking Care COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

“While it’s sad that we aren’t able to gather in person, this email felt like an inevitability, and theatreWashington is absolutely making the right call,” Amber Gibson, a nominee in the “Best Ensemble” category, said. “This isn’t a year for us to gather in-person, and their resources are better directed to assisting out of work artists and theaters through the Taking Care fund.”

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards nominees and presenters.

4615 Theatre creates a museum of the future for museum 2040

A headshot of Jordan Friend.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published March 3, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Starting this week, Washington, DC is getting a new museum, and a different kind of immersive theatrical experience.

4615 Theatre’s upcoming production, Museum 2040, written by Renee Calarco and currently in its last few days of development by the cast and crew team at 4615, is set in a museum curated to highlight a domestic terror event that occurs in Washington, DC’s future, with exhibitions that detail the political atmosphere of the era.

Repurposing the northwest DC space Dance Loft on 14 to create The National Museum of American Reconciliation, the team behind 2040 is designing an entire museum wing, with audio-visual exhibitions, historical anecdotes, and TED-level talks being filmed, produced, and set up for display as part of the production.

Helming the project, 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend looks to the extraordinary future Calarco predicts: “It was the kernel for something extraordinary, but we knew history would be hot on our tail. We’ve spent the past year expanding it into something even more sprawling, terrifying and thrilling than before.”

Which means? The production team is trying to stay ahead of current events while extending out to the year 2040. In the midst of their rehearsal process script lines, exhibitions, and props are being altered based on what frenetic news as it hits. One example described by 4615’s production manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett, is how she thought about the exhibitions and props during the impeachment hearings and acquittal of President Donald Trump.

“Anything Trump related can be expected to change the day before or midway through the production,” Brooks-Bartlett says. A display may be removed or updated, news clips are constantly being added. “It’s a lot of designing as we go.”

The team behind the development of this museum of the future is still focused on creating a traditional immersive presentation of sorts, which they describe as ” providing dynamic historical interpretation of past events.” Their promotional strategy, however, is anything but traditional.

In the weeks leading up to opening, Friend has engaged in an acute marketing strategy, aiming to blend a little of the immersive experience that audiences can expect when they attend this performance. Social media has become their strongest asset. A website for The National Museum of American Reconciliation is up and running. They are offering walking tours of the National Mall of 2030 and other special events. A performance by Sean Harrison (Sean Chyun performing in character) was held at the Harp and Fiddle on February 20th.

Not content to stop there, the production invited small groups of audience members and individuals into their rehearsal process for a number of sessions they’ve dubbed as ‘Beta Testing.’ Picture a preview rehearsal weeks in advance, where actors get to practice their roles, improvising when necessary, among a live audience while they tour the exhibitions. Friend and the production team have been gathering feedback from the groups to continue to make changes.

Friend tells us what they learned from the Beta Testing:

“We had a lot of asks from the audience about what else exists in this [2040] world … For example, we had somebody ask “I wish I knew what happened to the Green New Deal?” and rather than go ‘Oh, we really should add something about this,’we instead go, ‘Ok, lets leave just a few more breadcrumbs about the climate, and then let people construct in their minds what that might imply’. That way, we aren’t just spoon feeding them with world-building, but we’re also identifying the place where people just need a little more of a lead.”

Going one step further, the 2040 team created the short film “I Am Simmons” which drops hints  while leaving breadcrumbs for the audiences.

For Calarco, a founding member of The Welders Playwrights Collective, this work is intended to be “unproducible,” impossible, and experimental” in any one specific iteration. When she first developed the piece in 2015, it was already clear that the news cycle would outpace the vision for for the future.

“By June 2016, Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and by January 20, 2017, it was clear that whatever scary fiction I’d invented might be exceeded by reality,” Calarco says.

“Another event is more recent,” Calarco says. “The emergence of the Coronavirus. There’s no mention of it in the play at the moment. As I’m answering this question, we’re five days from opening, so there’s theoretically time to add something.” “Stay tuned,” is a comment Friend and Calarco say often.

[Museum 2040] is a reckoning, not just with what is happening now, but with how we will choose to remember ourselves,” Friend says.

Marcus Kyd, co-founder of Taffety Punk, restages suicde.chat.room for innovative tenth anniversary run

Black and white headshot of Marcus Kyd.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published February 24, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Marcus Kyd has two résumés (acting and directing) and a music catalogue. This may not sound special until you realize that both résumés, filled to the margins with production credits, do not contain overlapping credits. As a co-founder for Taffety Punk, Kyd keeps himself busy, and consistently in a state of creation with the other company members. The year 2020 is no exception, as Kyd has demonstrated that he’s not slowing down any time soon.

The Taffety Punk troupe has been described by the Washington Post as the “most vital of the city,” as the members act, dance and make music. They operate more as a band, according to Kyd, their productions coming together from collective jam sessions rather than the typical structure of building off a script.

Which brings us to suicide.chat.room, a play Taffety Punk first produced a decade ago, and is bringing back for its ten-year anniversary. This is one of those times where the cast is working from a script, building a new production and making new discoveries from a work they produced before. Now a fully formed script, suicide.chat.room was built by the Taffety Punk team from the words and writings of people who posted in chat rooms, message boards, and early internet forums where the subject matter dealt with suicide and the people who struggled with suicide.

“To me it was a scary idea. A lot of of us in the original ensemble had lost someone to suicide,” Kyd says. “We wanted to shine a light in this super dark place. Or let someone else know they were not alone.”

Kyd remarks how working with this script now feels like working with a period piece, as the internet of ten years (or before, since some of the comments used for the play were posted well before 2010) has changed over the course of a decade.

He describes how they would search the different forums, chat rooms and message boards of the pre-Facebook, Reddit and Twitter days for the conversations and pieces that make up the text of the production. They built the production from laying out pieces of those text on separate sheets on the floor and building the choreography from there.

“Even in that first rehearsal, we had a ten to twelve year period of internet time represented on the floor. All of the text is from literal chat rooms, some as far back from the 90’s. We didn’t even have to log in,” Kyd says.

Kyd and the current cast debated whether one character’s text may be interpreted as trolling today, or the intention behind another character’s description of coming up with multiple means of committing suicide. Through technical and artistic choices, ”We play with how the message comes across. You heard what we wanted to hear, but the internet is a crowded place, there’s a lot of gobbledygook going on all the time, but we wanted the audience to hear that.”

For the tenth anniversary, Kyd and Beauty Pill, the DC-area band that composed original music for suicide.chat.room are releasing an LP named “Sorry You’re Here,” in honor of the welcoming phrase the creative team would see from posters when someone new joined the group. There would be a cascade [from the posters of the online groups to the new members] of saying ‘We understand you, welcome, and sorry you’re here.’”

Another set of changes audiences can expect is in the choreography, devised by Paulina Guerrero.

“Every time this piece is re-mounted, it changes because it is a collaboration with the actors and the whole cast. The movement is so highly individualized, and based on the creativity of the individuals who are performing the piece,” Guerrero says. “There are core, group phrases and some key important solos that have remained the same, but even these always change with each new cast because each group brings a different and new raw energy.”

As a company, Kyd explains, Taffety Punk does not shy away from performing highly unusual, high stakes productions. They try to approach these stories with a poetic and honest eye. For both Kyd and Guerrero, there’s a sense that the stories are important to share openly and without fear.

“We pathologize and stigmatize suicide so much, that we push people into hiding. They don’t communicate or try to connect with anyone. Having suicidal thoughts is actually a part of being human-but we don’t say these thoughts out loud because we fear that people will jump out and institutionalize us.” Guerrero says, sharing studies on suicide attempts. “We need to take a long hard look of how our culture and society in the U.S. has created a toxic and unsustainable existence for many folks.” “When I lost my best friend there were no signs,” Kyd shares. “He was on his way to pick me up and didn’t show up. I saw [suicide.chat.room] as an opportunity to listen to the truly suicidal in their own words.”

Local author Jason Reynolds earns nationwide ambassador role from Library of Congress

A photo of Jason Reynolds smiling with his medal.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published January 27, 2020 in The DC Line here.

When Jason Reynolds was introduced earlier this month onstage at Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, a packed audience of middle and high school students from DC erupted into a standing ovation. Reynolds, in turn, assured them that their voices have the power “to knock the world off its axis.”

DC native Reynolds is the author of 13 books for young people, including his two most recent — Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks and Miles Morales: Spider-Man (A Marvel YA Novel). On Jan. 16, Reynolds began a two-year term as the seventh National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

The position — co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader — “raises national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people,” according to the Library of Congress website.

Reynolds, who started writing poetry at age 9, has also received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award honors. In 2016, he was a National Book Award finalist for the book Ghost

Reynolds graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George’s County, which honored the writer during the Library of Congress ceremony with a backpack gift delivered by student representatives.

The national ambassador is selected for his or her contributions to young people’s literature, the ability to relate to kids and teens, and dedication to fostering children’s literacy in all forms, according to a press release from the Library of Congress. The selection, made by the Librarian of Congress, is based on recommendations from an independent committee comprising educators, librarians, booksellers and children’s literature experts.

As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2020-21, Reynolds will visit small towns and cities across America to engage young people in meaningful discussions in groups large and small. He regularly talks about his own journey from reluctant reader to award-winning author, and he plans to redirect the position’s traditional focus by listening to students and empowering them to share their own thoughts and experiences. Reynolds calls his project “GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story.”

At the Jan. 16 event, Reynolds shared his experience of moving to and growing up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, after being born in DC. He recounted writing his first poem at age 9, reading his first novel from cover to cover at age 17, and his relationship with his mother, who attended the ceremony.

“The first thing she taught me to say was: ‘I can do anything.’ I had to say it every night before I went to bed. She drilled that into my head early in life,” Reynolds shared.

“This isn’t an award; this is a role, it’s a responsibility,” he said after receiving the medal. “And I’m going to make sure I do my very best to uphold it and make something of it.” 

Reynolds intends to focus on outreach to rural areas and marginalized communities, recognizing their relative lack of access to library resources and opportunity.

In his speech to DC students, Reynolds relayed a tender story of a student who had once asked him to rap for the audience. Instead, he invited the young girl to come onstage. 

“‘If you want me to put on a song and dance for you, come up here and see what’s like,’” Reynolds recalled saying. In the story, he gave the girl the microphone and said, “Here’s your chance.” 

Reynolds described watching the girl as she heard her own voice reverberate around the room. “In that moment, you could see her begin to swell,” he recalled. “Just to hear her voice loudly, and bouncing off her friends and the walls of the room, to hear her voice loudly was changing her in front of everybody. 

“Maybe it’s that young people don’t know yet what it feels like that their voices have power. That their voices can move and change a room, and shift the temperature and climate of a country and can literally knock the world off its axis. And maybe that’s because we as adults are not letting them know.”

His introductory speech as an ambassador was followed by an onstage interview with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. She asked about the idea that young boys typically “hated reading,” to which Reynolds described a world that limits the “idea of what a boy can be.” 

“Young boys oftentimes aren’t allowed to be whole humans. Young girls are never treated like whole humans, but they get to actualize the feeling of being a human,” Reynolds said. “Young boys are treated like whole humans but can never actually live in the world like one. They can’t cry, or be afraid or anxious and insecure.”

When asked about his interest in working in rural areas across America, Reynolds reminded audience members who live in Washington of their proximity to institutions such as the Library of Congress and the largest museum system in the country. “I see young people who can’t come to the Library of Congress. I’ve been in one-stoplight towns where the closest hospital is an hour away.” 

Reynolds is taking over from previous ambassador Jacqueline Woodson, best known for her young adult novel Miracle Boys and the Newbery Honor-winning titles Brown Girl Dreaming, Feathers, Show Way, and After Tupac and D Foster. Introducing Reynolds, she said the role of the ambassador is to connect with young people. 

“[Our] role is to see people, and let you know how much you matter to us. We love you all so much, young people. You are going to save us. I’m sorry you have to save us,” Woodson said to a round of applause and laughter.

Woodson’s work will continue on at the Kennedy Center’s newly opened The REACH campus as a former ambassador of the readership program, which began in 2008. Authors who have held the position in the past have included Walter Dean Myers, Katerine Paterson and Gene Luen Yang. 

Review: Joe Calarco’s A Measure of Cruelty from 4615 Theatre Company

By Julian Oquendo 

This article was first published January 20, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

There is something very refreshing about being an audience to theatre outside of a theater. 4615 Theatre Company is  proving, as did the bar hopping runaway hit The Smuggler late last year, that theatre works perfectly well when set in a bar or restaurant, park, library, or town square.

In this case, Measure takes over the historic Flanagan’s Harp and Fiddle in Bethesda, and the bar couldn’t be better prepared for this production. The efficiency of arriving a few moments earlier, grabbing a drink and a bite before the start of the show, and knowing that you’ve still only spent a fraction of what a night out to the theatre in DC would cost, makes me wonder why more restaurants and theater companies aren’t capitalizing on this practice.

Measure, written and directed by Joe Calarco, is a surprise addition to 4615’s third season. Calarco told DCTS that he wrote the play in the years following a harrowing South Florida case where three teenagers doused Matthew Brewer in alcohol and set him on fire. Brewer survived, but the case made national headlines and became a national talking point on how, as a nation, we handle bullies and abuse. While it helps to go into this play knowing about the case, the play isn’t about Brewer. It’s about the bully who lit the match.

Specifically, it’s about one of the bullies, Derek (Ethan Miller) and the recently discharged, traumatized soldier Buddy (Scott Ward Abernethy) who hides Derek in his father’s bar in the days after the crime.

Miller performs the role of Derek with a frenetic energy, moving and weaving through the bar and audience like a trapped, but ultimately terrified tiger. He’s living in fear of Buddy, his shelter and, technically, his captor. Miller shows us Derek as Calarco wrote him: gross, maybe drug-fueled and desperate, a kid hoping to run away from his consequences.

Abernethy is outstanding as Buddy. His embodiment of physical and emotional PTSD are reflected in a limp to his right leg, in how his shoulders slump or grow at the call to violence. You see in his body a weight getting lifted when he sees a solution that violence might resolve, and you see that weight falling back when he weighs the consequences of his actions. This is his drive, and, to avoid spoilers, I will only say that Abernethy wonderfully portrays the desire to keep that weight off other people. 

Miller and Abernethy’s performances, when they’re staged together, within a foot of audiences, drive home the proximity to violence we are witnessing. When Derek holds a bat over Miller’s head, when you can feel the venue rock as one actor is shoved against the bar, we, the audience, feel a little closer to their tensions and fears.

Nick Torres (Teddy) also shines as Buddy’s father, and aging bar owner, struggling with signs of early dementia. There is a heart-wrenching moment in the play when Buddy needs to remind him which son Teddy is remembering. There are other moments that feel off, and are maybe just clues to the emerging sickness: he quietly struggles to remember where he keeps the beer glasses, he thinks the bar is out of scotch when there’s a bottle present on the bar’s rail (accident or no? I wasn’t sure).  Although Torres’ performance is exceptional, his character does seem to operate only as back story to drive Buddy’s emotional landscape.

Measure feels like a narrative from another era, when we could still pretend that bullies and abusers don’t win in the end. (Ha!) That empathy and a hug were the solutions needed to put a bow tie on our darkest emotions. It’s just hard to empathize when, in today’s era, you almost suspect Derek and Buddy’s actions would be forgiven with a pardon.

This play isn’t for you if you’re squeamish to violence. Calarco, in his writing and direction, effectively portrays the traumas and broken natures of these characters, and delivers back story via audio from the news coverage of Miller lighting his victim on fire. There’s a particularly jarring scene where we hear audio from Buddy’s time in the military.

The setting is perfect, and, saying that, I apologize to set designers everywhere. Harp and Fiddle serves as a great backdrop to immerse yourself in this world Calarco has built. (This is the first time Measure, set in a bar, has been produced in one.) The wafts of what I found to be a damn good burger and decent fried food coming from the kitchen build an atmosphere that can’t be replicated on a stage. Thirty-five years of beer soaking into the bar can evoke feelings of previous generations and the sadness of missing memories. The clink of bar glasses, the part of the floor that needs repairs, all serve to the play’s setting of a fragile world that will struggle to get fixed.

A Measure of Cruelty will perform for one more weekend on the 25th and 26th. Their early matinee shows are perfect for a lunch and theatre experience, with time left over to find things to do for the rest of the day. (There are other events happening at Harp and Fiddle on the same days that weekend.) There are audiences hungry for this type of theatrical event. Perhaps you are one of them.