‘Long Distance Affair’ is intimate, immersive theater

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By AARON KRAUSE

The young man had never ventured outside the U.S. That is, until recently, when he and others dropped by Segun Adefila’s home and arts center in Lagos, Nigeria.

Adefila was deep in incantation. Nevertheless, he was thrilled to meet his visitors. The Nigerian welcomed them warmly, as though he’d long been expecting them. And he praised his guests. Surely, he forged a connection with them.

Indeed, connections often happen during live theater. And hopefully, this case was no different. However, this particular experience differs from traditional theater in many ways.

Actually, the “travelers,” including the aforementioned young man, were audience members/participants in Long Distance Affair. It is a unique, intimate theatrical experience run by Miami’s Juggerknot Theatre Company and New York’s PopUP Theatrics.

During Long Distance Affair, people “fly” places to interact, via Zoom, with individuals just like themselves. For example, you might partake in a yoga class in Beirut, Lebanon, learn about a Haitian tradition in a Los Angeles home, and interact with a medium at her Mumbai, India residence.

Actually, “travelers” experienced all three examples during recent virtual performances of Long Distance Affair. It runs through Feb. 21 from the comfort of your home, as well as the performers’ residences. In each city you visit, you’ll watch or participate in a short play. You can choose to visit three cities, or all six offered during this running of Long Distance Affair. In this case, the cities are Lagos, Nigeria, Mumbai, India, Mexico City, Mexico, Los Angeles, Calif., Portland, Oregon and Beirut, Lebanon.

Of course, since this is immersive theater, the performers will encourage you to interact with them, or participate in another way. But rest assured, there’s absolutely no pressure. In fact, characters such as Asha, of Mrs. Asha’s Benevolent Purposes And Small Causes Musical Medium Services, talk so much you needn’t worry about her singling you out. But if you’re not the shy type, feel free to communicate with your hosts.

Long Distance Affair is a valuable theatrical experience, in part, because you get to connect with people in a setting as intimate as a Facetime call. And they get to connect with you.

Undoubtedly, a character identified as “b” in a piece titled the break shouldn’t be alone. She’s disoriented. All that has happened in the world in recent months has obviously traumatized her. To illustrate, she tells us she exists in the year 2041 and certain individuals have sent her back to 2021 – and are following her. Does she exist simultaneously in both years?

As actor Barbie Wu credibly performs the break, there’s a panicky, disorienting, urgent tone to the piece. She is rambling, and most likely experiencing a panic attack. Black marks dot the corners of her eyes, as though someone punched her. Blood rests on her forehead. There is pleading in her wide, frightened eyes. Help me, do something, anything! her eyes seem to scream. But while you might empathize with “b,” you might feel helpless. Playwright Michael John Garces has written the break in such a way that its format and tone mirror the disorienting sensation many may feel today. The sensation of the set moving, spinning, or upsetting our equilibrium in another way, might have further enhanced the effect.

In sharp contrast to the break is Mrs. Asha’s Benevolent Purposes and Small Causes Musical Medium Services. Performer Neha Singh performs the piece with an air of serenity and affability. Mrs. Asha is outside her Mumbai, India home, where she greets “travelers.” We hear birds making peaceful sounds, and the effect is calming. Mrs. Asha is our medium and guide. In the piece, you’ll learn about a medium’s work, and some of Mrs. Asha’s talents. And if you’ve ever wondered why the arts are so important, she sums it up neatly in one sentence. “One thing I’ve noticed is that sharing our stories makes us feel more human,” she says in her Indian accent.

To her credit, performer Singh avoids playing her character as though she were some magical superhuman. Instead, the actor imbues Mrs. Asha with humanity. As a result, we can empathize with her when she tells us a true story about her not-so-happy past. Mostly, though, Singh makes us admire Mrs. Asha as an indomitable woman who has not allowed life’s unfortunate occurrences to break her.

Meanwhile, Pia Haddad seems content in her Beirut home for Night Lights. The piece is comforting and deeply spiritual. By the end, surely you will have forged a connection with Haddad’s character, named Layla. The performer plays her with a comforting aura that might call to mind a favorite yoga instructor whom you keep returning to due to her calm, caring nature.

Equally spiritual is the piece Bariga Spirit, set in Lagos, Nigeria. Specifically, the monologue takes place in Segun Adefila’s home. While it is difficult to summarize in a sentence, the piece takes on a ritualistic aura. It’s easy to pay attention, partly because the performer speaks with enthusiasm as well as joy. And you sense that his ritual is important to him.

So, too, do we sense Angelique’s passion about her Haitian traditions in a piece titled Angelique. The title character, described in the script as “Afro-Queen meets Hollywood vibe,” invites us into her cozy Los Angeles home. And we feel as though we’re present in the flesh. Angelique shows us an important object from her past and talks about a life-changing experience. Surely, you should be able to identify with her experience. Perhaps you’ll even shed a tear or two. The performer, Wendy Elizabeth Abraham, invests her character with zest. As a result, you want to remain with her even after the piece’s end.

True, Long Distance Affair does not take place in person. However, the experience is intimate and immersive. Certainly, you’ll feel as though you’re in the same space as your host. In addition, you’ll develop the kind of connections many are trying to forge during this lonely pandemic period.

So, kudos to Juggerknot Theatre Company and PopUP Theatrics for inventively creating intimate, immersive, and compelling live theater during a time of isolation. The former (https://www.juggerknottheatrecompany.com), delivers alternative, experimental, and non-traditional theater. Meanwhile, PopUP Theatrics (https://www.popuptheatrics.com) creates immersive, site- specific, site-impacting theatrical events in dynamic collaborations with artists worldwide.

Since its premiere in 2011, Long Distance Affair has brought together more than 75 artists working from countries on six continents.

This run of Long Distance Affair continues through Feb. 21. Performance times are 7:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. EST Thursdays through Saturdays, as well as 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. EST Sundays. The cost is $40 for three plays, and $80 for all six. For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35278/production/1034793. To watch a video trailer, visit https://www.facebook.com/JuggerknotCo/videos/3962435693800651.

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