Review: "In These Uncertain Times," a Sure Bet

In These Uncertain Times

Devised by Source Material

Directed by Samantha Shay

Presented by Source Material via Zoom

July 25-August 2, 2020

Raven Scott. Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
"In these uncertain times," like "stay safe," has become a ubiquitous rhetorical gesture over these past months, and with the current mix of ever more brazen governmental corruption and authoritarianism, ever worsening climate change, and a COVID-19 pandemic that is far from under control in the United States and has no clear end in sight, "uncertain" starts to sound like an understatement. With new show In These Uncertain Times, the theater collective Source Material focuses primarily on the uncertainty caused by the pandemic through and for theater. When and if life will return to "normal" is for the theater an existential question in multiple senses of the word, and what the theater community does in the meantime raises its own practical and philosophical—as well as, the show demonstrates, emotional—questions. The play begins by showing a quote from writer, educator, and theater artist Todd London lauding theater's connectivity and its bringing together of mind and body, proclaiming it the antidote to the virtual. What then, does it mean, again, both practically and philosophically, to redefine theater without that temporally and spatially shared embodiment? Devised collaboratively by Source Material, which describes itself as "an evolving nomadic group of artists carrying diverse backgrounds and lineages in artistic practice," and directed by founder and Artistic Director Samantha Shay, In These Uncertain Times enacts a polyvocal exploration of these issues and their effects that is by turns humorous and meditative, observational and absurdist, despondent and hopeful. Tickets to the show can be purchased here on a sliding scale, and no one will be turned away due to inability to pay.

Following London's words, we watch, from a first-person perspective, someone scrolling through an Instagram feed that is heavy on quarantine memes, a device that recurs, with differing emphases, several times throughout the show. The next section introduces us to the performers/characters, James Cowan, Miles Hartfelder, Annelise Lawson, Stephanie Regina, Raven Scott, and Grace Tiso, each isolated in his or her individual Zoom window, some of which afford views of bottles of alcohol; some a cat, to whom lockdown may not feel all that different; and some both. We see members of the sextet express disappointment regarding expectations for the Zoom call, question self-definition in relation to her vocation or "existing too much" or "too little," snack constantly, and cough extensively. As the play progresses, they will, in different configurations, play a chaotic drinking game, admit to severe depression, complete the phrase "you didn't notice when" in increasingly hilarious ways, ponder what love in the time of COVID will look like (there is a great double meaning to a line about realizing someone is worth taking your mask off for), and trade cheesy jokes. Interspersed, along with further Instagram segments, is an expounding on the nature of grief and the relationship between grief love and grief whose themes resonate with the show as a whole. The performance melds its various modes, including the chat function, to good effect, weaving a compelling whole.
Photo courtesy Emily Owens PR
The show draws to a close on a hopeful note, the melancholy futurism of a passage from Anton Chekhov leavened by a vision of nature that replaces anxious confinement and anxiety with calming openness. The sun perched on the horizon line might be interpreted as setting or as rising, or as signaling the twinned or cyclical relationship that recalls the show's considerations of grief and love, suffering and joy, life and death. There is also a final bit of Instagram and lip-synching that falls more on the joy and life side of things, and that invites.audiences to exit the performance with a smile even as they relate to its broader mingling of pensiveness and perseverance. Experimental theater in more than just the usual sense, In The Uncertain Times offers a searching, compassionate, and often funny contemplation of an unsettled present and an unknowable future.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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