A couple of years ago, Rumble Theatre artistic director Jivesh Parasram spotted a book edition of Guillermo Calderón’s play B in a U.K. bookstore. But when he decided he wanted to stage the story of violent protest, he could never have foreseen the circumstances in which it would happen—or the digital form it would take.
Once lockdown was announced just before rehearsals started in March, the company took the bold step of moving the entire production from the stage to online. (Audience members will be able to sign up for free tickets via Eventbrite, then tune in to a recording that was taped live.)
The process has meant a monumental effort involving video-conference run-throughs, computer-code-learning, and experimenting—“how to block it, how to rehearse it, what it means to be communicating through this medium through webcams,” Parasram explains. This, while designer Itai Erdal found resourceful ways to make sure the entire production has theatrical lighting (think sanitized gels being passed under doors and used with desk lamps), and while some cast members tried to juggle homeschooling.
Then there’s the biting comedy in this translation by William Gregory: “Humour is a big part in the process. It’s very difficult for the actors and we’re working on systems to try to accommodate that,” he explains. “They can’t necessarily see the other actor when they’re acting, and it’s not like a film shoot: we’re doing a whole play. It’s having to listen—it becomes really hard to say well what is the rhythm of the piece. You are utterly alone. It’s finding that tone, and it has been tricky.”
But as challenging as the process has been, Parasram says it’s brought into sharp focus the ways the absurdist, politically charged story speaks to these COVID-19-wracked times. And it’s revealed new meaning in the Chilean playwright’s provocative work.
First, the plot. The “B” of the title is a code name for “bomb”, and violence is a core theme. Calderón explores the tensions between two young, hapless female anarchists (played Maria Escolan and Lili Robinson) who want to make something go boom, and their meetup with a veteran explosives-maker—written as a male character, but played by Carmen Aguirre here. Drawing inspiration from protest in Chile he lived through, the playwright is exposing what revolutionary violence means to two different generations. At one point, the bomb maker questions the youths about what they’re protesting. “Protest everything… You know," one answers. And later: “Because of… Because of the system.”
“While it’s informed about the political reality in Chile, it’s super coded to global-North criticism,” Parasram observes. “With that, I don’t mean disrespect to anyone, but I often see righteousness and bandwagoning and posturing to say people are part of a cause. People working in solidarity is great, but there’s a lack of understanding of the larger frame of the political situation. All of us can be ill-informed very easily by not having to think about things because they’re less real to us.
“The protesters think they’re just getting a sound bomb, and what they end up with is a lethal weapon,” Parasram explains. “Then it becomes about ‘What are our lethal limits?’ ”
Parasram reveals that the idea of a bomb set off in the streets became “more real” with COVID-19 and our fears of bringing injury or death to ourselves just by walking out amid germs. “Even with a sound bomb, you are invading a person’s personal space and you could really hurt somebody,” Parasram observes. “That’s just like walking down the street now. Just when you cross the street now, you’re aware of how much you are in somebody’s space.”
Parasram says he’s finding the work’s themes also play to ideas of isolation we’re all grappling with now—at least in abstract ways.
“All the characters, at first glance, are people that are part of, or want to be part of, a bigger revolution,” he says, “but they are so isolated from it—severed from it. The text is pretty much word for word what Calderón offered us—but the idea of isolation is more implicit in the design. A lot of it has been designed to reference Zoom meetups.”
And so, for all the extra effort it’s taken, this online staging of B has apparently been a worthy exploration at a pertinent time.
“I think that right now there is more consciousness than there has been in a long time, because there has been this global pandemic,” Parasram says. “The reality where people have had to change their lives—that makes people a little more aware. I think this is a really great time to be in that receptive state, where they look at things a little more critically.”
Rumble Theatre presents B from May 21 to 24 online; register in advance at Eventbrite.