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The temptations of high-tech theater

Like a Mynah bird transfixed by a shiny object, part of me gravitates toward live plays enhanced with video and other multi-media effects. I want to see flesh-and-blood performers interact with characters on high-definition widescreen monitors. I want Shakespearean dialogue Instant-Messaged to me at my seat. I want Flash-animated scenery and graphic subtitles like the news-crawls on CNN. I want my Play TV.

But my level of anticipation of a high-tech show invariably equals the disappointment that comes afterward. Either the promising visual frills turn out to be superfluous distractions, or smart ideas fall short on the technical level.

PushPush Theater recently put a modern spin on Macbeth with video-projected press conferences and presidential addresses much like C-SPAN programming. But the picture quality didn't match the typical entertainment center of a neighborhood sports bar. The news-broadcast interludes of 7 Stages' Iphigenia ... a rave fable deepened the play's real-world texture, but never looked remotely close to actual tele-journalism. Theatrical budgets seldom make good on technological ambitions.

As an art form that's several millennia old, theater doesn't really need much hardware -- if you have performers, a space and something to say, you can put on a play. 7 Stages' current show Maria Kizito uses low-tech shadow puppetry to evoke Africa's geopolitical landscape, and it succeeds as well as -- if not better than -- some kind of video projection.

But just because technology cannot be trusted, that doesn't mean it should be abandoned entirely. When I saw Aurora Theatre's Das Barbecu, audio snafus plagued the musical, and loud, staticky "BZZZT!" sounds disrupted the songs of Marcie Millard. Microphones are barely a century old, but few theater Luddites would advocate giving up sound amplification. Or, for that matter, electric lights or online ticketing.

As television, computers and the Internet increasingly influence how people think and communicate, a vital, relevant theater must reflect that. Theater is so strong at exploring the way we relate to each other that it shouldn't surrender technological themes to newer, slicker media.

The Alliance Theatre's otherwise-forgotten Hearts in 2001 provided one of the rare examples of a new medium improving a production. At the end, a haunted World War II veteran had an epiphany during an online chat, and the correspondent's e-mails flashed silently on a screen above the stage. The gadgetry clarified the story rather than muddied it.

The state of high-tech, mixed media theater bears comparison to the painful, awkward phase of flight circa the Wright Brothers. Some experiments achieve lift-off, while most display elegant design or flap entertainingly before crashing to earth. Eventually, the art will catch up with the science, but don't expect a systems upgrade any time soon.

Bright Young Things
In announcing their new seasons, two of Atlanta's youngest theater companies are shifting their ambitions into higher gear, while a third slows down to regroup.

Out of Hand Theater's next show is a tweaked remount of the self-help seminar spoof Help!, playing Nov. 11-Dec. 5 at Dad's Garage Top Shelf. Out of Hand hopes to take Help! on the road, envisioning the show not in out-of-town theaters but in hotel ballrooms during conventions, just like "real" seminars.

The company's interest in unusual forms continues with Out of Hand Shorts, a series of sketches meant for guerilla-style performance at Atlanta's big spring events like the Inman Park Festival. Out of Hand plans to perform in cars, at parking meters and other public spaces. Most appealingly, they hope to gather 50 or so performers, teach them simple choreography, and break into mass dance numbers a la Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Out of Hand will flex its classical muscles with August Stridberg's intimidating classic Miss Julie, with Ariel de Man directing fellow producing artistic directors Adam Fristoe and Maia Knispel at 7 Stages Back Stage in April.

Jack in the Black Box Theatre Company, a troupe even younger than Out of Hand, begins its 2005 lineup with The Exonerated (rights pending), Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's acclaimed oral-history drama of innocent death row inmates saved from execution, at Horizon Theatre in January. In August at Actor's Express, the company will blend music, mime and dance to stage Jean-Claude van Itallie's Tibetan Book of the Dead, a poetic description of the afterlife. And in December at Dad's Garage, the company presents its own original stage adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Dad's Garage Theatre no longer qualifies as the young upstart, and as its nationwide search continues to replace artistic director Sean Daniels, the theater's ambitions seem scaled back. In December and January, it presents new versions of its Chick & Boozy holiday special and its short play compilation 8 1/2 x 11, but next summer offers no elaborate productions like 2003's Bat Boy: The Musical. Instead the playhouse will observe its birthday with a "summer of improv" that features off-the-cuff comedy. Once a permanent artistic leader is named, expect offbeat new schemes to steal the spotlight back from the youngsters.


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