Something new and cutting-edge is happening at Christ Church Neighborhood House this summer – the U.S. premiere of Perfect Blue, by G.S. Watson. Perfect Blue, produced by Philadelphia-based theatre company Tiny Dynamite in association with UK theatre company Pursued By a Bear, is an example of “transmedia storytelling.” According to their website, “transmedia storytelling utilizes live and digital platforms to tell a single story.” In this particular play, a husband and wife, both scientists, communicate via Skype. Harry Smith, who plays Michael, is physically located in London during the play. Emma Gibson, who plays Carys, is at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. (The starting time of the performances is actually adjusted to account for the time difference between the United States and the United Kingdom.)
Just being present at this premiere is fascinating, to say the least. The production, directed by David O’Connor, uses live streaming as well as video and projection. What makes this innovative is that both actors are performing at the same time, but are not in the same place. Up until last night I had seen quite a few shows that included pre-recorded video and audio, but this is different. The characters interact, yet are separated by an ocean and are experienced through different media. Michael comes on via the live stream on a projected screen at the back of the stage, and it is like watching a television program. At the same time, Carys is featured in the flesh onstage.
The play is set in the future, and the set/sound design by Jorge Cousineau definitely captures the austerity and cleanliness of a lab, as well as advanced technology. There are projections in front of Carys (which she moves through the air with her hand) to represent her work in the lab and her interaction with Michael via Skype, and projections behind her when she describes her scientific projects. When Carys stands in front of her company’s logo and explains the projects, she speaks directly to the audience. I felt as if I were attending a genetics convention or a meeting in which the company’s plans were being outlined to shareholders.
Perfect Blue is only 70 minutes, but it is a very complex and intense play that requires maximum engagement and attention. This is not only because of the various forms of technology involved. It is packed with personal, political and scientific references. It required me to watch a live actor on a screen and, at the same time, a live actor onstage, and also to understand their relationship problems, genetics, and the political events of the time. Carys and Michael are involved in a long-distance marriage, which is not satisfying for either of them. Michael is also a scientist but not working on a high tech project or engaged by an important bio-tech firm like his wife. There are political implications in the work being done by this firm that are wreaking havoc around the world. They also have a son who is never seen in the play, but becomes both a marital and political football.
As actors, both Gibson and Smith are excellent. Carys is cool and collected and appears very sure of herself. She is so clinical and in control that she almost seems like a robot. Michael, seen in a cozy home in London, seems more human, and is emotional, outspoken and “all over the place,” which is to be expected due to the circumstances. Ironically, even though he is experienced through the screen projection, he is the more vivid character – while Carys’ professionalism and indifference is breathing right in front of me. The contrast is stark, and it works.
I would like to attend Perfect Blue again, now that I have been exposed to “transmedia storytelling” firsthand, and the newness has worn off, in order to concentrate more on the scientific and political events. For future productions, it would be worthwhile to have a talkback after the show, to explain the technology, as well as to discuss the ramifications of species extinction, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the role of biotechnology companies in the food industry. Because there are so many layers to this stunning and groundbreaking piece, its major message may be overshadowed or upstaged.
I recommend Perfect Blue for those interested in technology, science, and sustainability especially.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.