March 7, 2020: Projections have been part of theater for a long time. But recently we have begun to see video take over a good number of plays.
Last season, Network, directed by Ivo Van Hove, featured enough video to almost upstage the formidable Bryan Cranston. Nevertheless, video made sense in a show about a world overwhelmed by media. What’s more Network was originally a1976 film. But this season, we are seeing video in some unexpected places.
At BAM, we have Simon Stone’s rewrite of Euripides’ Medea, staring Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale. Here. Stone (who also directs) turned Medea’s two unfortunate sons into videographers, which perhaps he thought justified the use of video throughout the show.
And Van Hove is back. This time he’s directing the iconic West Side Story. And he somehow got the estates of Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents to agree to a radical reworking of their masterpiece. As for poor Jerome Robbins, his choreography is entirely missing. Apparently, Stephen Sondheim, the only living person involved with the show’s creation, is enthusiastic about the revival. Sure, “I Feel Pretty” is missing. But everyone knows he never liked that song in the first place.
Van Hove doesn’t even give us a reason for the huge video screen that dominates the set of the new West Side Story. Sometimes we do see people (gang members?) with video cameras. Why are they there? Your guess is as good as mine, whether or not you’ve seen the show.
But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter why a director thinks theatergoers need closeups of what they’re seeing onstage projected on a screen. Or how video makes up for a bare set. Or the reason a videoscape has to dominate a love scene.
The result is always the same. The audience has no idea where to look. And because the screen is so large, hanging over the actors like the sword of Damocles, we look at that screen.
I’m quite sure these directors have all sorts of high-minded reasons for their choices: the relevance of multimedia work, the importance of bringing theater into the 21st century, the necessity of expanding the theater audience. But the bottom line is they seem to have little faith in live performance.
On the other hand, filmmakers don’t have that problems. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a film that featured actors jumping out of the screen to sing and dance down the aisles of the movie theater. I don’t think so.