During the first few months of the pandemic pause, between Zoom readings and Instagram monologues, I often found myself pondering the question of genre: What’s a play and what isn’t? Usually my answer was that if it’s made by theater people and I like it, it’s a play. But if I’m watching an actor on a small screen instead of a big stage, isn’t it actually television?
Ah, those innocent questions from innocent days! As the weeks wore on, and frustrated artists deprived of normal outlets began to make ever-odder experiments in form, the genre thicket became more impenetrable. What if a play is really a self-guided tour of a cemetery? What if it’s a whodunit with clues delivered by text message?
Or what if it’s the handsome box, the size of a large brick of Cheddar, that arrived at my doorstep the other day, its return address the Acme Corporation, a young experimental theater in Baltimore? This came just a week after I received a 6-by-9-inch khaki envelope from the La Jolla Playhouse, likewise containing what it advertised as the makings of a play. Still en route: “Artistic Stamp,” a collection of “interactive experiences” in the form of seven letters that subscribers will receive (for $100) between September and December.
So the United States Postal Service, as if it didn’t have enough on its mind, is now also shouldering the responsibility for delivering theater. You shoulder some responsibility, too: “Artistic Stamp” depends on your answering those letters; both the La Jolla and Acme Corporation productions are the kind that ought to bear the warning “Assembly Required.” Also required is patience: Neither snow nor rain nor clumsiness nor pandemic kept me from completing these experiences, but confusion and boredom very nearly did.
The La Jolla project, called “Portaleza,” at first seemed promising. The envelope includes several intriguing items you will use on a faux-spiritual journey to “pierce the veil” between worlds. One is a kind of Ouija place mat on which you are encouraged to write your name and that of a loved one you hope to contact. Another is a “hypocular viewfinder”: a cardboard gizmo coated on the inside with reflective material. When you hold it to your smartphone and start the video you’ve been sent a link to, it creates psychedelic multiples of the vaguely Carnaby Street images on the screen.
Had I not read in the accompanying materials that the video is meant to represent the passage of your message from this world to that where your loved one resides, I would never have guessed it. Nor did I realize that the video had somehow been personalized; there are said to be 416 different permutations of the experience, reflecting each viewer’s individual input.
But unless my handwriting was mistakenly read to invoke the Beatles, the reunion I got must have been someone else’s. My mother, whom I sought, never showed up, and I got a gloss on “Help!” — which was pleasant in itself but a mean bait-and-switch.
Still, if it was tedious and disappointing, “Portaleza” was gorgeous — which makes sense because even though it purports to be an “experimental procedure” created by a collective of avant-garde opticians it is actually the work of the scenic and costume designer David Israel Reynoso. Like some of his other theater projects (he was part of the “Sleep No More” team) “Portaleza” leans heavily into theater as a stylistic experience, and heavily away from theater as an intellectual (or even an especially coherent) one.
The Acme Corporation’s entry into the category takes the opposite tack, as you might discern from its twee title: “The Institute for Counterfeit Memory.” Inside its box are the makings of a 20-minute play whose meta-ness has metastasized into terminal archness. The conceit — a red herring, but for what? — is that you can improve yourself by replacing your useless memories with better ones suggested by the spoken dialogue recorded on the mini MP3 player provided.
I am not sure how that dialogue, which includes many sentences like “The main function of the voice is to express the inexpressible,” could be improving to anyone but an academic seeking an incomprehensibility upgrade. And though that parodic element makes the script sometimes amusing, I found myself truly engaged only when fiddling with the included gewgaws: a clamp light, a compact, three LED beads and the guts of a music box.
Part of the problem is that “Counterfeit Memory,” written and directed by Lola B. Pierson, provides nothing human to its human audience. (One of its five voices is said to be that of a robot, but I never figured out which.) Like “Portaleza,” it asks you to engage entirely with abstractions, which is hard enough to pull off in person. Removed by distance and time from the artists, I found myself frustrated, not only by the lack of emotion but by my inability to make snow, as directed, from the weird wet mush in the cellophane packet.
Eventually I came to feel that “Counterfeit Memory,” though snowless and bloodless, was a rather clever comment on our current theater of isolation. The problem isn’t genre, it’s the loss of connection. And though a voice from the MP3 player kept saying “This is normal,” it totally isn’t. About the only thing these plays-by-mail seem to be delivering reliably is proof of what we’re missing.
The Institute for Counterfeit Memory
Boxes are currently sold out but more will go on sale Sept. 15 at noon; theacmecorporation.org
International sales end Sept. 13 and domestic sales end Sept. 25; lajollaplayhouse.org
Subscriptions available at artisticstamp.com