Last weekend I saw The Thinning Veil at UC Santa Cruz. A UCSC events page describes the play as an adaptation of “Electra by Euripides, Electra by Sophocles, Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, The Oresteia by Aeschylus, and The Iliad by Homer.” Written and directed by Kirsten Brandt and produced by Ted Warburton, it’s a modern take on some dark old Greek dramas. But (forgive me, O shades of my high school English teachers) that’s not the interesting part. The play was performed on two stages simultaneously, with three live cameras broadcasting the action from each stage to its partner. One of the stages was the world of the living, and one was the underworld. The characters from the different stages sometimes interacted with each other through the video/audio feeds, and sometimes acted out scenes independently, as if the cameras weren’t there. As you can probably tell from my clumsy explanation, it’s a difficult production to describe.
Full disclosure: my brother was the reason I came to Santa Cruz to see this play. He was the Media Designer for The Thinning Veil, and hearing about all of the ridiculous things he was having to do to get the technology up and running piqued my curiosity. When he told me the premise, I admit that I was skeptical. I thought that the idea of having two separate stages connected by a live feed sounded like a pretentious gimmick, a curiosity at best. But to my surprise and delight, the technological/transmedia component of the play was completely in harmony with the story, and was integral to Brandt’s version of the tale. I walked away with a few small complaints — Iphegeneia’s speech about how she wants a job and “higher education” rang modern/feminist in a corny way, there were one or two odd casting choices, I had a few questions about the nature of the camera-bearing “veils” — but none of these had much to do with the problem of telling one story with two stages and six cameras.
I expected that if I found the play interesting, I’d feel the need to see it a second time at the other stage to get the full effect. But to my surprise, I didn’t get that impression. I found myself riveted by the performances of Kathryn Wahlberg as Cassandra and Patty Gallagher as Clytemnestra — Wahlberg was doing her thing fifteen feet in front of me, and Gallagher was several hundred yards away, but both of them were captivating whenever they spoke. And while I’m tossing out praise, I should mention that the veils were delightfully creepy and impressively dedicated, remaining in character as they operated their handheld cameras skillfully. They set the mood and kept the tension high while not detracting from the drama unfolding around them, and that seemed like it took some doing.
As I left the “Dark Lab” at the Digital Arts Research Center that evening, I found myself inspired, imagining all the storytelling possibilities that this production had opened up. It was fascinating, and beautifully done, and I deeply respect everyone who worked so hard to pull off such a ambitious play. If the crew hadn’t been careful, if the cast hadn’t been dedicated, The Thinning Veil might not have been able to convince me that we’re ready to explore storytelling in this way. But we are. I’m so excited to have seen The Thinning Veil, and I’m eager to see what’s next.
– Janet T.