On an Election Day like no other, my first attempt at distraction took me on a time warp back to 2017.
The time machine was “Shipwreck: A History Play about 2017,” which focuses on a group of friends meeting at a farmhouse in upstate New York. Trapped in a snowstorm, their conversations shift as the lights go out and the night stretches on.
This play made its U.S. premiere just before a global pandemic shut down theaters. Instead of waiting for the stage lights to go up again, the team behind “Shipwreck” transformed it into an audio drama.
In these remote days, I’ve watched videos of performances, live and recorded. Listening to a performance, however, was a new way to explore theater. Not being able to see the stage and the cast made my imagination play a big role. Hearing the characters’ voices forced me to focus on their words as well as what wasn’t spoken. With my headphones over my ears, listening to these friends argue, I was immersed in the drama, so much that I actually was distracted from the election for a bit.
When I think of audio dramas, I imagine a family gathered in a cozy living room around a big radio listening to a thrilling story with a big cliffhanger.
Or perhaps, a group of kids listening to “Little Orphan Annie,” which Ralphie loves so much in “A Christmas Story.”
Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” ranks up there, too, but these dramas all seem to be crystallized in a pre-TV time period.
A while back, I traded music for podcasts on my commute. The podcasts I like are less drama and more focused on storytelling. Some are simply excuses to geek out about gardening and journalism.
“Shipwreck” is different from all of this. When Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. in Washington, D.C., and The Public Theater in New York City announced they had reworked the play into an audio drama, I imagined my family gathered in a cozy living room around a speaker listening to a thrilling story.
Actually, the theaters recommend over-ear headphones “for the optimal experience of the sonic landscape.”
Earbuds are second-best.
Speakers are the last option.
So my husband got off the hook to listen to “Shipwreck.” (Back to your cooking videos!)
It’s his loss, because this was riveting.
“Shipwreck” was written by Anne Washburn, who also wrote “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”
Right around the time she was going to a writing retreat, James Comey, the fired FBI director, was telling the Senate Intelligence Committee about investigating Russia and the president’s ask for his loyalty. It became fodder for her latest play.
How much has changed since then in politics, in the world, in our democracy and in ourselves?
“Shipwreck” premiered in London last year in the midst of Brexit. It opened in D.C. just before COVID-19 shut down much of life. The audio play was released two weeks before Election Day in three episodes spanning about 2½ hours.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but the play keeps you on your toes, switching between the friends and other characters and shifting timelines. I felt like yelling at least once about all the time they spend talking and not doing anything.
As maddening as some of their arguments were, some of their points were so tempting.
“Now is the time to actually work to make America what it has always promised it could be,” one of the friends says.
There was something intimate about experiencing theater in a new yet old platform. However, with headphones on, it was a bit isolating, just like going to see a play in the theater alone.
With many theaters still closed, other directors have pivoted their paused productions to podcasts and audio. I’m going to keep listening.
“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.