Wed., June 24–Sun., June 28, 7:30 p.m., $15  

Murphey School Auditorium, Raleigh 

When it comes to staging theater for a live audience in the Triangle after COVID-19, somebody had to go first, and Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre took the job. 

Last week, the company premiered ACCORD(ing), an original dance and physical theater co-production with Sounding Line Arts and TÉA Creative. The experimental ensemble piece closes its two-week run at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday–Sunday in the Murphey School Auditorium.

Artistic director Jerome Davis thought of the production, which seats 10 socially distanced patrons per performance, as a test case, and while the art is intact—this time—the results don’t bode well for the economic model.   

“Given the current size of our budgets and productions, it isn’t economically feasible at all,” Davis says. “Still, we have proven it’s something that can be done if it’s the only possibility in the future.” 

With such a limited capacity, the run quickly sold out, though you can still get a virtual ticket at Burning Coal’s website. (Also on sale: Selene and the Dream Eater, a new “drive-in parking-lot play” for all ages at 7:30 p.m. on June 28.) The live experience was very instructive for other theaters attempting to crack the COVID-19 problem.  

Last Wednesday, I adjusted my face mask as I joined the nine other audience members gathered outside the auditorium on Polk Street. (No mask, no admission.) Though it was 10 minutes until showtime, nobody was going inside. A sign taped to the door advised us to maintain distance and wait to be admitted one by one at 7:25 p.m.

Right on time, a masked woman peered out from behind the door and beckoned the first person in. Couples weren’t admitted together. On my turn, I was led through the lobby, where another masked person pointed a thermometer at my head. Then she led me directly into the theater—no concessions.  

Six chairs were scattered across the dimly lit room, far apart from one another. Four more were in the balcony. The masked woman led me to one, ran an antiseptic wipe down its armrests and cushions, and motioned for me to be seated. I was asked not to leave my chair during the production, to exit one at a time at the end, and not to linger in the lobby. 

Then she walked off, and I was alone. The actors milled about at a distance on stage. The only sound was ambient pre-show music. I noted a strip of glow tape on the floor, marking a borderline the actors couldn’t cross. The comforting feeling of being part of a group was absent. Instead, I felt, in the words of co-creator and co-director Vieve Radha Price, “isolated on these tiny little islands in the sea of this show.” 

But while it might not work in every case, the aesthetic actually benefits ACCORD(ing). A pensive, mostly wordless, social-justice work, it focuses, through scene-length pantomimes, on the self’s relationships with different groups, from peers and neighbors to mobs. Its characters find themselves isolated—either across clearly marked racial or gender divides or subtler ones—from crowds that can be curious, judgmental, or violent. 

An initially blithe Nikki Turner braves a gantlet when an accusing ensemble forces her back against a wall. A mob subjects Madi Viterio to the claws of the crab-pot mentality—if I can’t have it, neither can you. Brennan McDonell’s character must decide if he can conform to the expectations of a self-centered crowd. Two life-sized puppet figures outlined in gray plastic provide a mute Greek chorus.   

Physical distance transmutes into aesthetic distance as we take in these well-choreographed sights. It feels lonelier when we’re left on our own to experience the world of the work without the usual camaraderie with our neighbors, and the loneliness reinforces the odd-person-out dilemmas these characters face. But what might it do to a comedy or a love story? In the absence of any other alternatives for live theater during COVID-19, the answers may not be long in coming.

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