Don’t call it a (theater) comeback.
Creators aren’t sure how to categorize “Riddle Puzzle Plot,” a Park Square Theatre mystery serial that kicks off tonight on the Zoom platform. But they do know they’re glad to have it.
“This isn’t theater, but it’s exciting to work with theater people,” said Warren C. Bowles, who is directing the whatever-it-is. “Take, for example, [actor] Aimee Bryant. I haven’t worked with her in quite a while. I love working with her. Even though we’re not really in the room together and we feel the distance this format poses, it’s still wonderful to make contact with people and work with them.”
The hope is that audiences will agree.
Written by “Glensheen” and “The Good Liar” scribe Jeffrey Hatcher, “Riddle Puzzle Plot” is a four-installment thriller created for Zoom. Its seven characters — played by Bryant, Pearce Bunting, Shanan Custer, Sun Mee Chomet and others — were supposed to be performing a theater company’s annual mystery, much like actors were currently supposed to be doing Hatcher’s “Holmes and Watson” at Park Square.
To find out what happens in “Riddle Puzzle Plot,” ticket buyers will log in to see the familiar Zoom “meeting room,” where performers will act in their own boxes on four successive Friday and Saturday nights (tickets are also available for on-demand shows for those who can’t watch live). Somehow, one of the characters will murder another one. Or will they?
When Park Square commissioned him, Hatcher quickly determined his victim but his mind remains open about whodunit. Drawing on sources as disparate as the Zapruder film and scavenger hunts that composer Stephen Sondheim once designed (and turned into the movie “The Last of Sheila”), Hatcher will write episodes the week they air, allowing him to respond to actors and audiences. The interactive elements are still coming together but include the possibility of, for instance, breakout “rooms” in which viewers can question suspects.
“It’s a little like going into an empty theater space where there might be a few things sitting around from another show and you say, ‘We’ll do a show now but only with the things we have in the room,’ ” says Hatcher of the challenge of working within the confines of Zoom and a four-episode structure.
He’s into it: “If it turns out Aimee has the worst laptop in the world, I’ll write for that. If she has the best, I can write for that, too. Whenever you give someone limitations, you are asking them to flex muscles they don’t usually flex.”
Hatcher said the restrictions are part of the fun. In particular, the plan is to use Zoom, and our grudging familiarity with its vicissitudes, as a jumping-off point.
“I was Zooming with someone the other day and her husband came in the room. I recognized his voice and he was walking around behind her but I never saw his face. I only saw his torso. So I thought, ‘That could be a clue. Was it really him?’ ” said Hatcher, who also may incorporate phenomena such as how the Zoom screen rearranges itself when someone enters a meeting, the difference in appearance between a computer user and a phone user and people who think they’re getting away with surreptitiously performing other tasks while they’re in a meeting.
Bowles thinks the interactive elements will nod to the intimacy of live theater, which the COVID-19 pandemic put on hold in March: “It’s very much the relationship you have with the audience as an actor, where the actor slightly adjusts the performance. It’s that give-and-take that makes me excited.”
Who’s Zooming who
Years of experience as a Dungeons & Dragons dungeonmaster will help Bowles coordinate the virtual efforts of the actors, all of whom are working remotely and some of whom he’s never met in person. He’ll also get an assist from Aaron Fiskradatz, the production’s Zoom technologist, a title we may see more of in upcoming months.
“The program is looking to play to the strength of the teleconferencing software we’re using and the conventions we’re all getting more experienced with as we do Zoom calls and FaceTime. It’s using those features of those platforms as a storytelling tool,” said Fiskradatz, whose day job is helping create theater as a program manager at Upstream Arts, an organization for people with disabilities. He first worked with Park Square on virtual performances by the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, and on a teleconferenced “Diary of Anne Frank” that drew nationwide praise.
“So many great angles on point of view and identity are baked into these platforms and that’s what I’m excited about: playing with ideas like when someone is streaming from their cellphone [but] we might not know who that person is because we don’t ever see their face,” said Fiskradatz.
The theater artist has various duties on “Riddle Puzzle Plot”: He’ll blend prerecorded elements with the actors’ live performances. He helps actors set up lighting, backdrops and sound equipment in their individual spaces. He assists them with internet connections. And he’ll conduct the Zoom sessions, admitting audiences to the “room” and coordinating with them on the chat and feedback functions.
That’s another way “Riddle Puzzle Plot” will differ from live theater: No curtain calls.
“Doesn’t it just align so neatly with the thing we are trying to figure out on Zoom? How do you end? That awkward ending to every Zoom meeting you’ve ever been on: Who hangs up? Who says goodbye?” mused Fiskradatz, who’s also working with other companies, including Frank Theatre, on virtual ventures. “What I’ve ended up doing is establish a digital green room so when the actors sign off, they can wave goodbye and gather there.”
It may not feel like settling into a seat with a playbill, but the more Fiskradatz experiments, the more he “bristles” when it’s dismissed as not theatrical.
“Some of the best theater I’ve seen in my life was when a physical theater pushed boundaries and raised questions in my mind that suggested, ’This is not theater as I know it.’ This is an extension of that,” said Fiskradatz.
The prolific Hatcher — who had a whopping 37 projects postponed or canceled by the pandemic, including two that would be running now in St. Paul, “Holmes” at Park Square and “Glensheen” at History Theatre — said writing “Riddle Puzzle Plot” to order has been a balm.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh, this pandemic lockdown must be great for you writers because you get to just write.’ Not really. I would argue I write less because of the depression of it all. Days go by that I think I don’t have it in me to write or that I’m sure what I write will just be terrible,” said Hatcher, a mystery buff who wants the play to offer audiences the kind of distraction it’s giving him.
“It has been such a horrible last four months and I’m sure there are going to be interesting theater pieces about this stuff, but I would like us to have a nice, light, fun, frothy, cocktail-y kind of evening that people can join in and see some actors who are great fun to watch,” said Hatcher.
Which sounds like just the ticket. Whatever you want to call it.