Given: The Masquerade Theater solved a complex problem. The company showed itself equal to the combination of making a Friday evening watching a literary masterpiece of a play about mathematics exciting. In addition, they proved they could function virtually. With infinite interest, your correspondent attended the on-line performance of Proof this May 22nd.
Prove: David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama provided prime material for this theatre’s debut show. In sum, the content fulfilled the Masquerade Theatre’s mission by using theatre to unveil our masques and explore our common humanity. This reviewer found it a good sine that the production team selected a show so equal to the expectations of this company’s base audience.
Originally intended as a live performance, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cast and crew to experiment. They decided to perform if and only if they received the appropriate permissions from the publisher and the cast agreed to do it. The former and the playwright himself concurred. The cast members delivered a uniform positive response.
The production team had only three weeks to come up with a formula for a convergence between the live show and a virtual one. The velocity of the time limit made that combination a stretch. For a team of people having no experience with camera work, one would postulate this an impossible event to complete. The odds against a successful performance exceeded the odds for a flawless one. The chance of a perfect production seemed as nil as an imaginary number.
The flawless function of the end result showed the amount of work the cast and crew applied to this product.
The technological aspects of this production became Masquerade Theatre Managing Director Tommy Balne’s domain. After researching multiple on-line platforms, he determined that Crowdcast would become the dependent variable t0 differentiate this performance from others. This outlier production was set to become an historical one in the annals of community theatre.
Director Megan Knowlton Balne selected an excellent set of performers to animate Mr. Auburn’s text. Each of the actors completed excellent transformations into their roles. It made their interpretations of the characters distinct.
Due to the lockdown prohibiting the bonds of integration, the cast members each performed alone in their own homes. They didn’t act as if mutually exclusive, however. During each segment with multiple characters, the scene’s performers all appeared on camera. Their faces would point to the audience as though either speaking to or looking at those watching. This connection added power to their performances.
The drama encompassed multiple dimensions. Catherine (played by Courtney Bundens) became the root of all the conflict in this complex plot. Following the passing of Catherine’s father, the brilliant mathematician Robert (played by Tony Killian), sister Claire (Emily Brennan) pressured Catherine to move away from Chicago to live in New York. One of Robert’s former pupils, Hal (Jake Hufner), pestered her for access to Robert’s notebooks…and perhaps Catherine’s affections.
Catherine also suffered through intense internal conflict. During the years caring for an ailing father, the character’s identity evaporated. Catherine sacrificed hopes, dreams and ambitions for Robert’s wellbeing. The mathematician’s death forced a self-reflection; and a struggle with the fear that Robert’s psychological disorder was genetic.
The playwright gave performers with the courage to play Catherine an atypical hero’s formula with which to work. The amplitude of Courtney Bundens’ performance met this demanding role’s challenges. Courtney showed a nontrivial range of skills to bring this troubled character to life. The actor’s facial expressions conveyed this character’s emotional journey.
Courtney delivered the lines with harsh realism. Courtney’s heated exchanges with Emily became even more unsettling with Courtney and Emily looking into the camera. Courtney’s reading of Robert’s “proof” was absolutely heartbreaking. Courtney’s and Tony’s performances allowed the devastating nature of this scene to transcend the barrier between actor and audience.
In a pre-performance interview, Jake Hufner reflected that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Through that understanding, he delivered an inspired performance as Hal. Jake satisfied the character’s function as Catherine’s antagonist and, at times, love interest. Jake brilliantly showed Hal’s development from his first meeting with Catherine to their interaction years later. Jake expressed a brilliant translation of Hal’s awkwardness, indecisiveness and later the character’s confidence. Jake also showed the character had heart in Hal’s interactions with Courtney.
Emily Brennan played Catherine’s relation, Claire. The latter is one of the more controversial theatrical roles. It’s difficult to determine whether Claire’s motivation to sell her sister’s home is in Catherine’s best interest or just mean. Emily’s stern facial expressions and curt dialog made it difficult to determine. In doing so, the performer achieved a much more interesting Claire.
Tony Killian portrayed Robert, a man of eccentricity. Tony’s face kept a rational expression to reflect the academic icon being portrayed. While the character’s “machinery” may have deteriorated, the performer’s histrionic level was well above average. Tony’s disordered hair added a nice touch to the pivotal scene between Robert and Catherine.
Crowdcast did have limits of integration.
The platform couldn’t ensure that the actors would come up in the same order on the screen. Because of that, everyone played to the camera. Megan developed a bit of a corollary to Nora Desmond’s (as played by Gloria Swanson) axiom: “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces.” The camera centered on head shots as the performers faced the screen. Tangential to this, they delivered Proof’s text like they talked directly to the audience. Your correspondent enjoyed this unique theatrical innovation.
With everyone performing from their own home, it created an unusual challenge regarding staging. The cast and crew made the lack of a set into a superset. All the actors performed in front of a similar brick backdrop. The format allowed the audience to focus on the players themselves without any external distractions. For an intense character driven story such as Proof, this added power to the viewing experience.
The team addressed the divergent series of events in the script through creative costuming and prop passes. The actors executed the switching of notebooks and bottles between characters believably. Even the incidents when Courtney’s and Jake’s characters kissed came across the screen as lifelike.
The Masquerade Theatre added the opportunity for audience participation to the production. Crowdcast included a chat feature. The virtual spectators wrote comments before the show, during intermission and at the concluding question and answer period.
The team ensured that Proof included something that would please theatre purists. The show still had a 15-minute interval at its midpoint.
After the virtual curtain call, the actors and production team participated in a question and answer session. The most popular question submitted by an audience member was, “Why is Jake Hufner so cute?”
While not answered during the session, the obvious response is that Jake understands the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has led by example and practiced his craft in a safe environment which limited the spread of a contagious disease. In that sense, all the performers in Proof are adorable.
The company’s two principals, however, sat together on a couch in the same room. It should be noted that the Balnes celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary this May 16th. It’s a testament to the strength of their relationship that they are willing to face these uncertain times together.
In all seriousness, I wish Tommy Balne and Megan Knowlton Balne a belated very happy anniversary and the best of success in all their future personal and creative endeavors. I’ve watched them perform on numerous occasions and am a great admirer of their work.
Following the performance, actors Jake Hufner and Emily Brennan allowed the audience to see their home sets. Emily showed infinite creativity in designing hers. Perhaps in a tangential reference to the ongoing pandemic, she may have wanted to infer the importance of good hygiene. Emily converted her shower into a stage. Compliments to both her ingenuity and excellent sound quality.
Based on the original presentation of Proof, the Masquerade Theatre should experience exponential growth. The company scheduled a live presentation of Great Expectations this December. This performance will have an audience in the building’s interior. They are also planning to shift Proof to the live stage in May 2021. The same cast is slated to perform.
That will be a solid solution to equal the expectations of those interested in the Masquerade Theatre’s function.