Modern devices creeping into timeless shows

Electronic devices, the ones house managers beg patrons to silence or deaden, are increasingly navigating their way onstage.

Exhibits A and B are two shows I reviewed this past weekend for DC Metro Theater Arts: Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical “The Last Five Years” at Signature Theatre and Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” by the Providence Players of Fairfax.

kindle-bedIn “Dinner With Friends,” the digital cameo was innocent enough. A long-married couple, Gabe and Karen, are reading in bed. Gabe has an old-fashioned book. Karen cradles her Kindle. Most likely this was director Tina Thronson’s way of emphasizing not only each spouse’s individuality but a touch of marital tension, showing them on different wavelengths. The play is about divorce, after all.

More intriguing was director Aaron Posner’s choice in “The Last Five Years,” a show also spinning on divorce. It bends time to chronicle a five-year, doomed relationship by starting the woman at the end and the man at the beginning. They take turns singing soliloquies, alternately time-traveling forward and backward, until they meet in the middle, in real time, for some kissing, dancing, marrying, parrying. During much of the show, though, they are singing to no one, using far-off focal points. In Signature’s production, it’s interesting when the female character, played adorably by Erin Weaver, Skypes a song via Apple PowerBook to her father.

11451676_037fc313eb_oClever! Especially for a show set in “present-day” or without a specified time period, what’s the harm in updating the properties list to help modern audiences relate? It’s done all the time with Shakespeare, amiright? Reinventing the Bard and making him thoroughly modern Willie is almost expected.

il_fullxfull.269366519“The Last Five Years” isn’t very old, just over 10 years. Still, Jason Robert Brown could never have imagined this Skyping twist when he wrote it. The problem I see comes when the play’s other pop-culture references, such as “Duran Duran” (1980s pop-rock group), “Leave It to Beaver” and “Mr. Ed” (1960s TV shows), clash with a video-chatting generation. Sure, nostalgia is always “in.” But at some point, this show will play to audiences who have no clue what those references are; they will seem quaint, like Cole Porter lyrics, and you will need more than a Yiddish glossary to follow along.

8559004_1For all we know, a 2064 production of “The Last Five Years” will find holographic performers onstage like something out of “Star Wars” — hey, Broadway theaters already dispatch the orchestra down the street and pipe them in; who knows when actors will be next?

Whatever the future brings in theater, whether we see robots doing kick lines or costumes being beamed on and off, inserting props into shows that pre-date their existence seems a slippery slope.

The day will come when prop shops run out of Princess rotary phones to do “Bye Bye Birdie” and we find all the kids texting during “The Telephone Hour.”

princess-phone-54464050334Imagine Col. Pickering in “My Fair Lady” ringing up Scotland Yard on his smartphone. Or the “wireless” used in “Titanic: A New Musical” interpreted as the sort of wireless we know today. Can you hear me NOW? ANYBODY?!?

It’s only a matter of time ’til Mark Antony heralds: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your e-mails!”

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