Review: It Came from Theatre Three

Dallas, Texas – As DFW theater companies produce more works for online streaming, their filmmaking skills are improving. Get used to it, because we’re not going to see professional live theater like we used to — in an space with a filled seats — for a while, kids. Spring 2022 at the earliest.

Theatre Three came out of the gate strong after the shutdowns with The Immigrant, which director Jeffrey Schmidt filmed in the theater using a green screen and only one actor at a time in a scene, with other artists — designers, actors if needed — in the space masked and following CDC protocols. Their second offering, a Halloween-themed collection called It Came from Theatre Three, has one more showing today. I wish some of these online productions had longer runs and, frankly, didn’t demand that we watch them at traditional theater showtimes. This is the time to tweak all the past norms, after all. Some groups are letting audiences watch them on their own time (you buy a ticket and get a 48-hour window), which would undoubtedly garner more viewership as some folks might like to start a show in the morning or afternoon, or the night owls might tune in at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m.

The four works in It Came from Theatre Three are by local writers and have horror, or at least some spookiness, in common; but they’re all different in writing, performance, and filmic style. They all feature vivid women characters. Some use Schmidt’s green screen method, and some use real sets. The result is the best streaming theater-film hybrid that a DFW company has yet managed.

My favorite is the opening play, Nicole Neely’s The Loss of Jane, inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 feminist short story The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s terrific writing and performance, but T3 Associate Artistic Director Christie Vela’s direction is what takes it to the next level. Neely’s version is set just after WWII, and Vela uses camera shots from some of the film that she loves — Vela is a cinephile and lover of thriller and horror films, and their sub-genres. Sometimes we don’t see her husband John’s (Benjamin Stegmair) head, or the actors’ backs are turned to the camera. We also get close-ups on faces, which you can’t do in live theater without the aid of live video. Francine Gonzalez is devastating as a woman who has been mistreated and might be having a mental breakdown. She fixates on the wallpaper in her home, eventually seeing a face in it. At the end of this review is a short interview with Neely about the work.

Vela also directs Jonathan Norton’s Bloody Mary, set in the Roman empire with Lydia Mackay as the title character, who goes, well, gladiator on some soldiers. It has the gore of a slasher film and Titus Andronicus, and there’s a campy quality to it.

Blake Hackler’s Doctor Diablo is very current cautionary tale about a Trumpy “Karen” named Marla (Mackay) who refuses to wear a mask during a pandemic. It’s funny; at times silly. The comeuppance factor is somewhat satisfying to those of us doing everything right — not gathering in groups, wearing masks in public and around co-workers and family when necessary, washing out hands constantly, etc. — for as long as it takes for this crap to end. Sadly, that end is nowhere in sight because of the thousands of Marlas (men and women) who claim personal freedoms over trying to keep other humans safe and ending this thing. Fun turn by Gerald Taylor II as the title character. I also love that the toy store is called Toy Tornado, which reminds of the water park Hurricane Harbor — the dichotomy of a place for fun with a destructive and deadly weather system in the name.

Then there’s The Old Woman in the Wood, which was first performed by Schmidt and Mackay’s The Drama Club at the Festival of Independent Theatres about a decade ago. It’s inspired by two Grimm’s fairy tales, The Old Woman in the Wood and The Juniper Tree, and uses puppets, trash, and puppets made of trash. The masks, puppeteering and object manipulation is fantastic, as are the voices of all four actors. Puppeteering can be slightly different when meant for film rather than live theater, in which we’re usually aware of the existence of the puppeteer — even if they’re dressed in black and meant to seem “invisible” (in this version, we sometimes see the puppeteer, and other times we don’t). The Zoom-like trash puppet sequence is hysterical.

Speaking of screams, Vela and Schmidt host the proceedings with her as an Elvira/Morticia-esque witchy woman and him as a younger Vincent Price-type. Complete with vampiric voices and goofball puns, it’s kind of perfect.

Now, to that interview with Nicole Neely on The Loss of Jane.

TheaterJones: When did you first read Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and did it strike you as a work you’d want to adapt for the stage?

Nicole Neely: One of Jeffrey and Christie’s guidelines was that the play could be inspired by a favorite scary story or a story that scared us as a child. I started to think about the stories that used to scare me as a kid, and I remembered reading a series of stories in a middle school English class centered around the empowerment of the underdog. I distinctly remember the fear associated with reading the stories about women escaping their loveless, abusive marriages. One of them being The Yellow Wallpaper. At the time I remember loving the story and all of its creepiness. I also loved writing! But we didn’t have a theater program. I didn’t start writing plays until I went to college.

What about the story compelled you to adapt it?

The horrifying (and almost darkly comical) positivity of the protagonist. Throughout the whole piece! It haunts me every time I read it, how a person can be in the middle of a dark experience for years of their life and eerily accept that this is just what life is. All of my plays are in discussion with mental health and how we endure. The way the lady in The Yellow Wallpaper endures her depression is very scary and I wanted to translate that into my interpretation as well.

How did the adaptation change as you learned it would be filmed in Jeffrey’s technique with the green screen and only one performer at a time?

From the very beginning, we were given three options: the play needed to be written within the limits of the theatre. Whether it was a green screen, a physical set, or using the theater itself as a background, the play would need to be able to be filmed at the theater with only one actor at a time. Because we’d seen The Immigrant, we had an idea of what we all needed to write for as well. The Loss of Jane was filmed with a physical set!

I love Christie’s direction. There are some great camera angles that seem influenced by the film directors that she loves. How much did you two talk about the filming of the play, stylistically? Did you have much input?

I also loved it. In the beginning of the process, she recommended movies with different lighting styles and tones. One was in black-and-white and the other was an older horror movie with a bit of a scary, angelic soft-toned filter. We talked about what I liked and what I didn’t. From there on, she would clear certain things with me along the way, but ultimately, I trusted her to do whatever she deemed fit for the story.

Were there pandemic-considered techniques for the face in the wallpaper? In scenes with the face and Francine, is the material for the backdrop enough to protect both actors? Or maybe it’s done in a completely different way.

That’s a good question! My understanding is that there were considerations in every aspect of the filming: Everyone was tested before they even started shooting this scene. They all had their temperature checked as they came into the theater at the beginning of each workday. The very limited staff in the building wore shields and masks around talent. They washed their hands or used hand sanitizer between each take. The fabric was a Lycra Spandex and only one person was allowed to do the effects and touch that piece of wall. And I’ve confirmed that the talent avoided ever actually touching the fabric during filming.

How is this story relevant for today?

Many people are stuck in their homes for the foreseeable future. The distractions we used to be able to hold onto aren’t readily available any longer. Feelings of loneliness and stuck-ness are elevated, and I imagine many people are struggling with their mental health right now. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this story as a “what might have been” if she hadn’t ignored her first doctor’s “rest cure” recommendation. She did find help, and I encourage all who are struggling right now to seek the help they need and to continue seeking it, even if it’s hard.

Anything else to add?

I love Theatre Three’s innovation during these weird and bad times and can’t wait to see what they do next! I hope that if whoever is reading this has $15 to spare, they’ll support a local theatre working to provide safe and accessible theatre with some Halloween spice.

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