The 1812 Theatre’s Productions latest production, The Way I Walk, is a prime example of a hybrid form of performance that our pandemic has spawned. Available for viewing only via Zoom, The Way I Walk includes elements of video, live theatre, and graphic art. Some of the bits could not be done in any live theatre, but only on film or video. Nevertheless, it also includes the immediacy of live theatre, a sense of close contact with what’s happening before us on the screen that standard film or video cannot offer. (The show involves a bit of fresh audience input at the beginning of every performance that’s then embedded in the performance, like the call-out prompts in improv.)
Let me not go too far before I mention that The Way I Walk is one of the better examples of this new hybrid. It’s a show that playfully explores the possibilities of possibility. And does so in an engaging way.
The set-up seems to be simple: a large company is conducting a company retreat. Pre-pandemic, this usually meant a gathering of the corporate tribe in a large space before breaking up into smaller groups to discuss company values, goals, directions and whatever buzz words ruled the day.
This show imagines what happens in a company retreat when the workers are all back home, carrying out any necessary interactions via Zoom. In this case, the personnel are divided into groups of four, from four apparently different departments. They’re united via Zoom, and understandably uncomfortable about the whole situation as the program begins.
Their discomfort level is only deepened when informed that the main activity in this retreat will be playing a virtual board game called … The Way I Walk, of course. Like many a board game, this one involves the rolling of dice, the pulling of cards, moving three steps forward, or two steps back. The team is guided through their paces by the never-seen Barb (delivered by MB Scallen) and her assistant Toby (delivered by Thomas E. Shotkin). Barb and Toby explain the strange rules of this game and help out a player when she slips or doesn’t quite grasp the rules.
Just what the flip a board game played by four people participating from four different locales, linked together by the grace of Zoom, has to do with a company retreat soon becomes evident. This is a team-building exercise, at the end of which the four women involved have formed a solid team who have not only learned something new about the other three, but also learned some important truths about themselves.
True, some of the bits are rather silly – but most of these are more along the lines of a Thinking Person’s silly. I was even reminded at points of some moments from the classic Monty Python skits. The silliness can still draw a chuckle, but those silly bits can also serve to give the more serious elements sharper definition.
And there are many parts of The Way I Walk that have something serious to say about relationships among co-workers and among women whose life experiences – while quite different – share deep roots.
The success of a hybrid-theatrical experiment such as this depends heavily on the talents of the actresses involved, and the 1812 quartet who took up this challenge were all splendid all the way through.
The four seemed to have been chosen in order to present clearly four different types. Jennifer Childs was Jen, the older white women. (Both during the show and in the post-show discussion that followed, Childs joked about her age and the burdens that come attached to the acquiring of wisdom via experience.) Melanie Cotton was Mel, the African-American woman who grew up trying to establish her place in a society that often-thought girls and women such as she should just accept their assigned places. Tanquil Márquez was Tana, the youngest of the four, a late Millenial who sees the world as a smorgasbord of rich possibilities. Bi Jean Ngo was Bi, a second-generation Vietnamese-American still working out the full dimensions of her dual cultural identities.
Tana plays her role imitating Owen Wilson’s character Francis from The Darjeeling Limited, complete with uncomplimentary head and face bandages. The other three team members play their parts relatively straight, except that Bi does slip into the persona of a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich from time to time. (For the uninitiated: the banh mi is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Philly hoagie.)
You have probably noticed that the characters’ names are remarkably similar to the real-life names of the actresses. Not only are the names similar, but many of the stories related in the show sound like they could be (at least in part) autobiographical. The fact that the show was written as well as performed by the quartet strongly suggests that the actresses did dip into their own life stories for some of the most absorbing material.
An interesting element is that at times the actresses switched roles, so one of them would tell the story of one of the others. Within the context of the play, this could be seen as a clever team-building strategy. As a theatrical device, it makes the show that much more interesting.
The Way I Walk is a wild pastiche of different colors, tones and theatrical textures. (And let’s give a nod here to the stage prep team, especially set designer Jennifer Hiyama, props designer Missy Furth and video assistant Michael Long.)
While no one could call it a well-shaped play, it doesn’t really try to be that kind of theatre. If anything, it celebrates its patchwork form, just as it celebrates the lives and spirits of the four women who make it work so well. It’s entertaining all the way through and well worth Zooming along for all fans of theatre reimagined.
The Way I Walk is available for viewing until May 23. Tickets and further information are available at www.1812productions.org or at 215-592-9560. Tickets can also be purchased on the Theatre Philadelphia website.