What Do You Miss? Reflections on KAREN, I SAID

I haven’t been an active participant in the Zoom “theater” scene. Maybe partly out of a hope that it would all be temporary, that the brief spark of innovation required to take something intended for a stage and a live audience and transpose it onto a medium that could only partially deliver a live-feeling experience would be just that – temporary. Alas, here we are, almost October and we remain confined to virtual performance platforms for at the least the next few months.

KAREN, I SAID, written and performed by Eliza Bent, caught my attention in that it was among the first ‘evening-length’ digital media performances created by a member of the New York experimental theater community. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, with design by Erma Fiend, produced by Sarah McLellan with additional support from New Georges and Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation, it seemed like it could offer a welcome break from the scattered Zoom readings, evenings of short performance, brief works that would probably work better in a modern art setting, etc. Eliza Bent is about as close to a recognizable brand as you can get in downtown theater land (I say this in a good way) – she has a specific and winningly skewed sensibility and a propensity for embodying characters, which I assumed would not be overly diminished by the Zoom platform. As I roused myself on the evening of the performance (it was presented Wednesday September 23 – Saturday September 26), I was at least convinced that whatever followed would not be boring. I would find something to write about. This feeling belying my larger reluctance in not offering to cover anything performative hither to this point – beyond writing about the technology itself, would there really be anything to add as a critic? And worse, blasphemy perhaps but; how much did I even miss theater?

At least showing up is easy – I clicked the link, minimized the screen while skittering around the internet aimlessly, and grabbed a beer (easier to do that as well, and you have your own private restroom that’s available to you throughout the show) before settling in. On Zoom, you can see the audience, which actually makes it more like a “real” show. I suspect I recognized more names than I would have faces, which is a bit bizarre. In an actual theater, one might scan the crowd for people to recognize, but here was an entire attendance sheet for me to scroll through. I set up my screen in such a way that I would only see those with active video turned on with the intention of going full screen and only seeing the box that Bent was performing in, but Jeff Jones (playwright, maker, producer of Little Theater, benevolent godfather of the experimental) entered the show late and somehow ended up as a black box taking up half the screen below Bent, so I had to re-toggle so that he’d go away.

KAREN, I SAID functions in a three-act structure. The first act was a pre-recorded and edited Instagram story collage from one of three Karens we would encounter throughout the evening, though she spelled her name Karyn. Each excerpt would start with the phrase “Karen, I said –” and go from there. Amusing, punny, and winningly stupid, this sequence of one-to-three liners stretched on until it seemed at least theoretically possible that this would be the entire show, and then the screen went black and we jumped boxes to a new Karen, who presumably had been the targeted/intended recipient of all those Instagram videos from Karyn with a y.

This sequence, in which the second Karen silently cooks food, cleans, and consumes wine while angrily typing into the Zoom chat in order to defend herself from her friend Karyn’s claims, was bracingly active and unique. At one point, Karen puts the camera / her computer into the oven and closes the door. It was an intriguing use of perspective, the conflict was clear, and Bent’s new persona felt exactly right in terms of how much of a joke one might want to make of the “bad” Karen. Put into other words, we know it’s an easy enough target to present a “Karen”, which according to Wikipedia is “a white woman who uses her privilege to demand her own way at the expense of others.” The production maneuvered its way past the easy mark into more interesting territory, as the live chat function allowed the audience to retort back at Karen (if we wanted to, and some did), and her aloneness and angry sadness granted her some personhood, not just the receiving end of token target practice.

The third act was optionally participatory. We were prompted to turn on our cameras (most did) and given some instructions by a third Bent character iteration, Karin, who is here to deliver some sort of seminar on anti-racism. She goes to great lengths to point out that her name is pronounced differently, either rhyming with car or with emphasis on the -in, but certainly not like Karen. With everyone’s camera on, it became addictive to scroll through the audience while listening to Karin work her way rigorously through various disclaimers and semi-apologies for the use of various language that which might trigger our myriad sensibilities. In the audience view, Clubbed Thumb artistic director Maria Striar’s dog Otto made an appearance, which was heartily commented on in the live chat. A warm togetherness was somehow achieved with the seminar format, complicated by what I can only assume were several other performers trolling the seminar in the chat function, which then encouraged random audience members to join in, either in conversation or to heckle. It was unclear as to how serious one should take the seminar itself, which was both a send-up and replica of what it feels like to hear a white woman talking about race, space, centering, privilege, etc. Just as the format would have forced some content that could have been more dangerous into the fore, the show ended. We did the things you can do on Zoom to “clap,” and one by one, left the meeting.

Leaving is easier too – no lingering to congratulate the performer, no rush to the bathroom. You just find yourself home again, at your own leisure.

I do miss thinking about theater that I’ve just witnessed – trying to figure out the thornier aspects of the craft. And I was surprised to find myself reluctant to leave the meeting, even after the show had concluded. I missed the audience. I missed being in an audience. I missed supporting my friends and their work. I missed Eliza. I missed the community of it all, and for an evening KAREN, I SAID found a way to bring us back together.

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