TheSharedScreen’s ‘Tape’ unspools tense and scorching storytelling

In a new adaptation for live Zoom, the keen writing and brilliant performances shine.

TheSharedScreen’s scorching new Zoom production of Tape — the 1999 play turned 2001 indie film starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman — is a successful experiment in embracing the present virtual reality of theater.

With playwright Stephen Belber’s permission, Tape was adapted by Neal Davidson specifically for the Zoom platform. Instead of a meetup in a motel room with three old friends, as the original script dictates, this production is framed as an actual video call.

Travis Schweiger as Vince and Neal Davidson as Jon in ‘Tape.’

Tape is a conversation between two, and then three, high school friends on the occasion of Jon’s return to town for a film festival. From the beginning, the interaction between Jon (Neal Davidson) and Vince (Travis Schweiger) crackles with old resentments lurking just beneath the surface of polite conversation. But in short order, a much darker memory emerges, and Jon realizes Vince has a very serious agenda behind this seemingly innocuous catchup.

As in a real video call, the three actors address each other by looking directly into their screens, and we the audience are forced into “dramatic betweenness” — a theatrical term of art introduced by Neil Davidson, whose class, John Dapolito’s Master Class for the Working Actor, was the crucible in which this performance was forged.

Dapolito, who also directed, avoided a major downfall of many Zoom productions: excessive stillness — as when actors sit in their respective Zoom boxes talking but not moving and I struggle to stay awake in front of my own screen. On the contrary, Dapolito hardly allows his actors to sit still physically, emotionally, or vocally. This variation — different notes hit at different times — makes for a dynamic visual tableau and compelling storytelling.

As Jon, Neal Davidson is believable as an intelligent, self-righteous aspiring filmmaker. Although Jon starts out the play perched firmly on the moral high ground, the tables are quickly turned when his old flame, Amy (Chelsea J. Smith), unexpectedly joins the call. Smith also delivers a solid performance, perfectly playing the part of the bright and cheery young professional…but also betraying something darker and angrier lurking behind Amy’s eyes.

However, the undisputed engine of the show is Travis Schweiger as Vince, a twitchy, drugged-up, firefighter-cum-pot dealer who, unbeknownst to John, has a very specific agenda behind this friendly catchup with his “oldest friend.”

Travis Schweiger as Vince, Chelsea J. Smith as Amy, and Neal Davidson as Jon in ‘Tape.’

Early on in the production, Vince reveals that his ex-girlfriend broke up with him because “she says I have violent tendencies.” Throughout the performance (which is live), it’s hard not to keep darting one’s eyes over to Vince’s side of the screen, as though he may act on one of those violent tendencies. Schweiger is a very compelling physical performer, utilizing every square inch of his Zoom box as his coked-out self jumps and jives all over the place, his body vibrating with suppressed emotion.

By adapting Tape so that Zoom is integrated into the piece from the bottom up, Davidson normalizes the format, effectively rendering the video call platform, such an encumbrance in other pandemic pieces, almost invisible. By making the format incidental to the piece, Davidson allows the keen writing and brilliant performances to shine without being upstaged by this weird new medium.

Essentially, Tape succeeds because of the basics — good writing and good acting. Together, under the superb direction of John Dapolito, these elements create a tense atmosphere that I squirmed to escape and yet was sad to leave when it ended.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, plus open-ended live talkback.

Tape presented live by TheSharedScreen performs next at 8 pm ET Friday and Saturday February 19–20, 2021. Lobby opens at 7:30 pm ET. No intermission, 90 minutes. Live talkback follows. Tickets, which are free, are available online.

CREDITS
Written by Stephen Belber
Directed by John Dapolito
Adapted by Neal Davidson
With Neal Davidson (Jon), Travis Schweiger (Vince), and Chelsea J. Smith (Amy)
Presented by TheSharedScreen
Producer: Neal Davidson
Assistant Producer: Kristen Noriega

SEE ALSO:
Riveting adaptation of ‘Tape’ to unreel live on line six nights only
Using Zoom in a new way to create theater that transforms how we see feature by Neal Davidson
‘Tape’ is tailor-made for Zoom but not to this critic’s taste in theater

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