It is said that one of the thrills of experiencing live theater comes in knowing that you are breathing the same air as the performers on stage. Currently, strenuous efforts must be made to limit that sharing. But most enthusiasts still hope to retain some sense of everyone being together in the moment.
In its intimate space, now reconfigured to resemble the set of some vintage theater of the absurd production, the Footlights Theatre at Falmouth has reopened after being closed for months as a result the COVID-19 pandemic. Reopening now represents an audacious move by Footlights Executive Artistic Director Michael J. Tobin. Broadway theaters will be closed for the rest of 2020 and almost all Maine theater companies are looking to fall or later to restart.
Tobin has gone to some lengths to meet state guidelines and allay safety concerns for audience members, actors and theater staff. He has reduced the seating capacity to accommodate only 25 socially distanced people, installed two air purification systems and is asking patrons to wear masks (setting aside specially protected seats for those who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons). Beverage and restroom protocols have also been instituted and regular cleaning of the entire facility is promised. Contact information of visitors is also noted.
The most striking aspect of this summer’s production, apart from the scattered seating, however, is that plexiglass shields of the sort found nowadays in front of most convenience store clerks separate the actors from the audience. The vigorously delivered dialogue was still easily audible on opening night, but the shields did create a distraction by reflecting the stage lighting back onto certain spots in the audience area.
“Cupid’s Arrow,” the 80-minute, one-act play presented (with two brief stay-in-your-seat pauses), is a two-actor work written and directed by Tobin, who also performs the role of Jimmie Tate opposite Leslie Chadbourne as Fannie Lou Harper. Neither performer wears a mask until they finally exit the stage.
Adapted for the COVID era, the play may not represent anything particularly profound but does offer a brief, laugh-filled moment away from thoughts about the microscopic elephant in the room.
The two characters, who are “people of age,” connect through a dating website called Silver Southern Singles. Their online conversations gradually lead up to a no-contact first date, but only after they’ve exchanged tons of corny jokes, double entendres, scatological zingers and folksy witticisms.
Jokes about the pleasures of loose clothes, frequent naps and having threesomes with Ben and Jerry fly by as Jimmie and Fannie recite what they are typing to each other on their laptops. Sexual politics and nostalgic regrets create just slight edges as the divorced pub owner and widowed librarian begin to let down their defenses.
A repeated theatrical device where draft messages are accidentally sent rather than deleted successfully provides Tobin and Chadbourne opportunities to add a layer or two to their characterizations. Both are adept at varying their performances just enough to avoid the threat of a sort of verbal tennis match that might easily define this show. When they switch to Skype, things get considerably more animated, with costume changes adding flash.
The set by Tobin successfully connotes lives overwhelmed by sentimental memories. The play suggests that out of such potentially lonely places new love may still find a way. Perhaps Cupid’s arrows, dipped in a new vaccine, will soon unmask us all to each other once again.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.