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Review: Brave New Classics’ Techy Spin Contemporizes Forgotten Works

The pandemic has created a brave new world of sorts. As a result, a bold new theater company has emerged onto the Triangle scene reimagining classic plays with a modern twist.

Noelle Barnard Azarelo started Brave New Classics last summer to spotlight forgotten works by notable playwrights not frequently produced. The company’s first production, He & She by Rachel Crothers was streamed on YouTube in July (and is still available for viewing). Subsequent productions, Kincora, Undertow, The Starter, and The Rover, streamed on the company’s Twitch channel. And although most of these scripts are old enough to have entered the public domain, Azarelo is determined to breathe new life into them by pushing the limitations of the virtual realm.

Such is the case with Brave New Classics’ current production, A Little Radical: Works by Alice Gerstenberg. Gerstenberg, a modernist playwright, was a prominent figure in the Little Theater Movement in Chicago in the 1920s. She challenged theatrical conventions and inspired other writers like Eugene O’Neill.

Azarelo hand-picked eight of Gerstenberg’s plays to produce as part of this compilation. Collectively they paint a portrait of Gerstenberg’s body of work, from the feminist to the absurd.

Several of the plays, like 14, Hearts, and He Said and She Said highlight the playwright’s wit and use of comic irony to catechize the social stratification of women. Another play, The Illuminati in Drama Libre, under the direction of Mikki Stith, capitalizes on special effects to lean into the more avant-garde, experimental elements of Gerstenberg’s work. Captain Joe, thought to be Gerstenberg’s first play, is made far more interesting and relevant by inclusive casting (a factor most likely not considered when the three-act was first performed in 1912). Unfortunately, audio problems diminished the efficacy of reimagining of Captain Joe at this moment in our history.

The plays that seem to work the best in this lineup are the ones that zero in on Gerstenberg’s use of language, accentuate a strong performance, and employ technical elements sparingly. Director Michael Parker’s minimalist approach to Beyond, for example, effectively underscores the internal struggle of a young woman grappling with God, duty, and being true to herself. Attuned, which Azarelo directed, strips away all the special effects and calls attention to Jess Jones-Gauslå’s gorgeous and emotive performance. Placing value on character and story over spectacle feels very theatrical in its intent, and yet in this case, makes for a surprisingly satisfying cinematic experience.

But perhaps it is the production of Gerstenberg’s most influential work, Overtones, first produced in 1915, that most efficaciously uses technology to verily enhance the script (what a novel idea). Though many of Gerstenberg’s characters are wrestling with themselves in one way or another, none dramatize inner conflict better than Harriet and Margaret. And it is the physical manifestation of the split-subjects on screen, amplified by two superb actors, Azarelo and Benji Taylor Jones under the direction of Ruth Berry, that contemporizes this play and renders it timeless.

It’s been less than a year since theaters shut down and virtual productions became the norm. Whereas in the beginning virtual theater didn’t amount to anything more than readings or talking heads in boxes, now productions like A Little Radical: Works by Alice Gerstenberg show just how far the play-film hybrid has come.

Moreover, if this production is any indication of Azarelo’s long-term vision for Brave New Classics and how technology might be utilized to modernize forgotten theatrical works, then the company’s future is promising and Azarelo is deserving of some attention and praise.

A Little Radical: Works by Alice Gerstenberg runs through Sunday on Brave New Classics’ Twitch TV channel. This is a free event, though tips are welcomed. For more information visit Brave New Classics’ Facebook Page.

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