Waiting for the Host
Through Saturday, Oct. 10
Raleigh Little Theatre, online
The prolific horrors and absurdities of 2020 have repeatedly beggared description. The only reason we’d hesitate to apply CNN host Jake Tapper’s description of last week’s presidential debate—“a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”—to the whole wretched year would be the credible fear that something even worse still lurks between now and December 31.
Theodora, an Episcopal priest who’s a central character in Raleigh Little Theatre’s virtual production of Waiting for the Host, has plenty of company among those feeling godforsaken in the real world. There’s no shortage of theater artists in that number.
Amputated from their audiences in the spring and evicted from live venues, they’ve been forced to reinvent themselves, almost overnight, as practitioners of another genre altogether: a weird online hybrid of film and television with technical requirements that impose an aesthetic fundamentally different from conventional theater.
With few exceptions, the entire theatrical cohort has necessarily been learning to crawl ever since. Amid flashes of brilliance—and no small amount of beginners’ luck—in exceptional showings like the Women’s Theatre Festival’s Natural Shocks in March, theater groups have mainly struggled while trying to acquire new technical and artistic fluency.
That struggle continues in Waiting for the Host. Artistic director Patrick Torres tries to recalibrate his cast’s performances from the overbroad gestures appropriate in a full proscenium theater to the subtler micro-gestures needed when acting for laptop cameras set only a few feet away. But with few exceptions, actors overshot—and overacted—on opening night.
They were hardly helped by similar excesses in the underdeveloped characters and situations in Marc Palmieri’s uneven script, which was rushed too soon to market after its April world premiere. It would be a challenge to overcome the wan stereotypes and lowest common plot denominators in a text that rarely rises to the level of sophistication we’ve come to expect from Raleigh Little Theatre.
It was uncomfortable watching veteran actor Tina Morris Anderson reduced to a perpetually cringing clergyperson as Theodora, longtime theatrical yeoman George Labusohr to a template of a jilted lover with an ax to grind as Vincent, and up-and-comer Joey DeSena to a generic, pretentious big-city the-ah-tah director as Dodd.
Palmieri tries to convey a present-day slice of American life as the characters gather on Zoom to rehearse a church’s Easter play that’s been forced to go online. Preacher’s kid and technical wiz Ben (Hakeem Abdur-Rahim) complains that “there’s nothing usual anymore,” before Effie (Gillie Conklin), an irascible but technically illiterate senior citizen straight from central casting, grouses about the onset of quarantine during Lent: “I was going to give up cheese. Then we gave up civilization.”
Feeling all but literally godforsaken, Theodora pointedly ends the passion play at Jesus’s crucifixion, without staging a resurrection. When predictable consequences unfold from there, the future of the budding theatrical troupe hangs in the balance—even more so when Dodd breezily proposes a follow-up production of Oedipus Rex.
But the gears repeatedly grind when the playwright abruptly shifts from low-level sitcom jokes to Theodora’s true but insufficiently supported moments of doubt and pain. Estranged characters reconcile without rhyme or reason, and Palmieri telegraphs a character’s arc with a single cough. This lack of subtlety in the text mirrors similar troubles in a production from a theatrical community that’s still out on the comeback trail.
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