When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Michigan theatre companies were forced to either move their existing programming to an online format or create new programming made specifically for virtual consumption. Theatre NOVA has led the charge on both of these fronts with their Zoom play festival last fall, a continuation of their holiday tradition of British pantomime with a show focused on finding holiday cheer amid the strangeness of 2020, and now with a new play series called “Play of the Month”.
This month’s play, Whatcha Doin?, skillfully directed by Theatre NOVA Producing Artistic Director Diane Hill, starts as a matter-of-fact interview conversation between a film student and a former child actor. But as the play progresses, we are offered a deeper look at the cost of fame, and the reality that things aren’t always as glamorous as they might seem in Jacquelyn Priskorn‘s sweet, thought-provoking script. The play also deals with life during the pandemic, asking, what does going back to normal look like after all this is over, and will we necessarily want to?
The constraints of a virtual platform could be difficult for an actor to navigate, but Whatcha Doin? is no less compelling than it would be on a stage (although of course, it’s meant to be performed online). As Raven, the exuberant and curious student looking for a glimpse into the life of someone whose career they’ve followed for a long time, Megan Wesner is a delight, managing to walk the line between charming and slightly, sweetly obsessed. Their excitement, mingled with a gentle understanding and genuine thoughtfulness gives depth to a character who could have easily been reduced to an awkward fan.
Kate Stark expertly portrays the cynicism and disillusionment that came with Marnie’s sudden childhood stardom, while also showing us the reasons she became popular, alternating during several different animated character voices during one short sequence of the play. We see her simultaneously flattered by Raven’s excitement, and also tired of it.
The two actors capture the tentativeness of not being sure how to act around each other, Raven being a little star-struck by Marnie, and Marnie being a little wary of Raven’s rose-colored view of how her life must be. As they get to know each other a bit, Marnie begins to open up to Raven, confessing that she’s not sure she ever wants to leave her house again, not even after the pandemic is over. The world out there has very little to offer her, she thinks.
Of course, this kind of thinking can’t help but creep into our own brains as we watch Raven start to understand Marnie’s point of view. Marnie’s discomfort with the way the world sees her is valid. Her character’s looks prompted the catchphrase “Ew, Dody!” which her fellow actors and even the general public shouted out to her all the time. Raven understands and sympathizes with this part, saying, “Most people don’t know what to think when they look at me, and some people think it’s important that I know that my presence is weird and makes them uncomfortable because I look or dress differently”.
In the end, we see the characters form a sweet bond, and look toward the future with an optimism and hope that is inspiring. It makes our own future seem a little brighter, and our own resolve to face the “Ew, Dody’s” of the world a little stronger.
Whatcha Doin? was performed live, but is available to watch until the end of February with a Series Pass. For tickets and more information, please visit Theatre NOVA’s website.