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Walden – Online via TheaterWorks Hartford

Writer: Amy Berryman

Director: Mei Ann Teo

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

An outdoor production with a live audience, recorded for a virtual audience to watch indoors, Amy Berryman’s Walden confronts our technological hurdles in both its presentation and its story. The creative team and the characters rise to the challenges of their moment in history.

Set in an unspecified time, some decades into the future, and an unspecified location, several miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, we are introduced to Bryan and Stella (beautifully embodied by Gabriel Brown and Diana Oh) in their tiny home cabin in the woods. They are expecting a guest, whom we later find out is Stella’s twin sister, Cassie (well played by Jeena Yi). When Bryan leaves the room Stella pulls out a device from which she hears a news report of a Moon Habitat team returning to Earth, and an area on the east coast recently hit by a mega-tsunami, where one million missing persons are now presumed dead.

Cassie arrives wearing a mask. While the air is clean and breathable around the cabin, that is an exception to the rule. As her visit unfolds, we learn that she is a member of NASA’s Moon Habitat team. Stella used to work for NASA, too, but now she lives off the grid with her fiancé Bryan, an activist fighting for the reclamation of Earth over the colonization of outer space. These conflicting ideologies form the basis of the questions that Walden poses and explores (coincidentally well timed with the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Are we at an environmental tipping point from which the next generation of humans will not be able to return? Are the solutions toward humanity’s survival found in repairing this planet, or in colonizing other worlds? Do we have to choose one over the other?

Along with the grand questions of human existence and confronting our failure to be good stewards of the Earth, Walden lovingly delves into the complications of relationships. Regardless of our external technological evolution, humans remain largely unchanged in our personal interactions and emotional wiring. Family histories of loss and trauma, along with individual struggles of failure and success, are and will continue to be relevant (and likely central) in our everyday lives.

Berryman’s script subtly but clearly employs each of the play’s relationship pairs to represent the need for groups with conflicting ideologies to come together to make healthy progress toward survival. Science and technology can be both the problem and the solution.

Director Mei Ann Teo takes great care in balancing the needs of a live production with the constructs of a recorded presentation. There is no attempt to hide the live audience; their presence is in fact purposefully showcased from beginning to end, often tying long shots from the rear of the seating space to scene changes and to important entrances and exits. It is slightly off-putting at first, but once the discomfort of an unknown experience fades and the bigger picture comes into focus, one sees the benefit of Teo’s choices. She weaves together the best and worst parts of being in a live audience while accomplishing far more than simply recording a play for digital platforms.

The live play makes beautiful use of the outdoor setting. Slowly fading daylight ties perfectly to the story’s timeline, and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design creates the perfect atmosphere of thunderstorms and generator use during a blackout. The playing space extends beyond the boundaries of the cabin, creating a long, deep staging area that provides for a more dynamic presentation. A train can be heard in the distance a couple times, but that does not appear to be part of the play. Perhaps the live audience cannot hear it because they are all wearing headphones, but for the at-home audience these are the rare moments when the production site briefly impedes the viewing experience.

Minor distractions aside, Walden is a timely, moving, heartfelt work of theatre. The in-person experience must offer something the at-home viewing does not, though the reverse is just as true. However you chance to engage with it, Walden is worth the journey.

Runs until 29 August 2021 | Photo Credit: Christopher Capozziello

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The American team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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