‘Tape’ is tailor-made for Zoom but not to this critic’s taste in theater

Does a new adaption of Stephen Belber’s three-hander for live performance in a pandemic point to a new theatrical paradigm? Who knows?

Jon, a filmmaker just starting to make a name for himself, comes home for the premiere of his latest film at the Lansing Film Festival. His old high school friend Vince, now a small-time drug dealer, gets Jon to talk about a sexual encounter ten years ago with Amy, whom they both dated in high school, that may or may not have been consensual. The discussion becomes increasingly tense and confrontational, Vince reveals that he has been surreptitiously tape-recording Jon’s recall of the incident, and when Amy arrives, confessions, apologies, and revelations abound in Stephen Belber’s 1999 play Tape, being presented as a livestream performance by TheSharedScreen.

Travis Schweiger as Vince, Chelsea J. Smith as Amy, and Neal Davidson as Jon in ‘Tape.’

What was originally set in a dingy room in a Motel 6 is updated — with Belber’s blessing — to a Zoom call, and the trio of actors — Neal Davidson (Jon), Travis Schweiger (Vince), and Chelsea J. Smith (Amy) — are delivering their performances separately from DC, NYC, and California. Producer/Adapter Davidson penned this preview article for DCMTA in December, describing the revelation that came as the acting master class he was taking moved onto Zoom, and how that changed the way the actors interacted, to the point that he founded TheSharedScreen to explore the potential of Zoom theater.

Davidson bills this as a “powerful new theatrical medium” he dubs dramatic betweenness. It’s theater, I suppose, in the sense that we’re watching a live performance in real time, but then with the audience in gallery view as “silent and invisible witnesses” with their cameras and mics disabled, leaving the audience and performers cut off from one another, is it really? It’s billed as “in your face” and “intensely personal” with the actors “eye-to-eye” with the audience except it…isn’t. The actors aren’t making eye contact with us but with their webcams; any connection between performer and audience is entirely illusory, and the audience are less participants than voyeurs, to the extent that I wonder why the actors bother performing live at all.

Travis Schweiger as Vince and Chelsea J. Smith as Amy in ‘Tape.’

Time will tell if this is the birth of an entirely new theatrical paradigm or if this is a temporary pandemic-obligated detour. People more well-versed than I in dramatic theory can debate its artistic validity; I suspect that there are other theatrical endeavors in the past year that have more deeply explored the potential of alternative theatrical mediums (see 4615’s programming), but I’m more qualified to comment and reflect on the actual finished product in terms of its visceral impact on me as a viewer.

Tape is tailor-made for Zoom adaptation, and Davidson’s selection is savvy, even if a few nagging issues come up — does anyone even use mini-cassette recorders anymore? Could Vince have digitally recorded the Zoom call instead? And since nobody is physically preventing him, what keeps Jon from leaving the call when things get uncomfortable?

The biggest barrier to my embracing this production is the inability or unwillingness of the cast — particularly Davidson and Schwieger — to adjust their broad performance styles to suit the intimate medium of Zoom. Director (and the cast’s acting coach) John Dapolito, for better or worse, lets the actors run wild and indulge their excesses. Whether it’s the former’s overgesticulating, or the latter’s predictable unpredictability bouncing off the walls and furniture like a superball, the level of artifice that might read (slightly) more natural in a larger performance space comes across as, respectively, belabored and cartoonish. In Jon’s own words, the “competition over who’s more authentic” is a scoreless draw. Chelsea Smith’s comparative subtlety and understated rootedness when she arrives midway through the 90-minute performance is a breath of fresh air, though it’s not long before she rivals the others in scenery chewing.

From a technical standpoint, the production is impressive, except for frequent dead air between the actors’ lines that I couldn’t tell was attributable to tech lag or simply actors needing to pick up their cues.

At best, TheSharedScreen’s Tape is a flawed exploration of an alternative performance medium, at worst it’s a self-indulgent acting class project.

The pandemic has created new paradigms — some permanent, others likely not — in many aspects of our lives: the way we work, shop, eat, absorb culture, or express (and occasionally monetize) one’s sexuality. But just as there are few who would legitimately imagine that a webcam stripshow on OnlyFans will permanently replace dating and hookups, I can’t imagine that I am bearing witness to the future of theater. At least not this particular production. But then again, who knows? I might be as cluelessly dismissive in hindsight as the Decca executive who passed on signing the Beatles in 1962 saying, “Guitar groups are on their way out.”

I’m obliged to point out that this performance is being presented for free, and that’s legitimately admirable (donations are encouraged; actors after all have to eat). That being said, if you have an Amazon Prime subscription, the 2001 film version directed by Richard Linklater starring Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke is also free.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, plus open-ended live talkback.

Tape presented live by TheSharedScreen performs next at 8 pm ET Fridays and Saturdays February 12–13 and 19–20, 2021. Lobby opens at 7:30 pm ET. No intermission, 90 minutes. Live talkback follows. Tickets, which are free, are available online.

(This review is based on a recording that DCMTA was provided of the live February 5, 2021, opening performance and talkback.)

Written by Stephen Belber
Directed by John Dapolito
Adapted by Neal Davidson
With Neal Davidson (Jon), Travis Schweiger (Vince), and Chelsea J. Smith (Amy)
Presented by TheSharedScreen
Producer: Neal Davidson
Assistant Producer: Kristen Noriega

Riveting adaptation of ‘Tape’ to unreel live on line six nights only
Using Zoom in a new way to create theater that transforms how we see feature by Neal Davidson
TheSharedScreen’s ‘Tape’ unspools tense and scorching storytelling review by Michael Poandl

Ditch the “Is this theater?” debate, by Jordan Friend and Gregory Keng Strasser


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