Review: “The Great Divorce” Virtual Performance
Like many other production companies in the wake of COVID-19, the Fellowship for Performing Arts has started performing virtually. FPA’s most recent stage play to make the transition was C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Although the livestream event is over, you can still register to receive a link to the video before Wednesday.
The Great Divorce is based on the book of the same name by C.S. Lewis. In it, a narrator (often interpreted as a stand-in for Lewis himself) takes a bus ride from hell to heaven and is confronted by many ideas and philosophies on the way. He is accompanied by ghosts from hell who are then met by spirits in heaven to help them transition from one state of being to the other.
Although the cast is only four actors (Jonathan Hadley, Carol Halstead, Joel Rainwater, and Tom Souhrada), in order to follow safety guidelines they each filmed separately in front of a green screen and then were edited together to create a unique experience for the audience. The result is a fascinating blend of both stage and screen conventions.
In most films, a character directly addressing the camera is used for comedic effect. Whereas in theater, that breaking of the “fourth wall” is used for comedic and serious moments. The Narrator (Rainwater) often addresses the camera as though he were talking to a theatrical audience, but because the camera is much closer than any physical audience would be there is more intensity in his dialogue and expressions. This is also used to great effect in one of the later scenes on the outskirts of heaven. At this point in the play, the Narrator has seen multiple ghosts meeting spirits who came to help them become “more solid” and thus stay in heaven. Instead of talking to a visible spirit, the Ghost of Robert’s Wife (Halstead) addresses the camera. This makes the audience stand in for the spirit she is talking to and they are left to either silently judge or empathize with the ghost.
The closer view also shows the costumes (designed by Nicole Wee) in greater detail than they would be seen on stage. The Narrator wears warm, red colors making him stand out from the very drab and monochrome outfits of the ghosts. The warm colors also make him in some ways seem more real than the spirits, who are dressed in white. The exception to this is George MacDonald (Hadley), who wears a red tartan over his white robes. MacDonald is the spirit who welcomes the Narrator to heaven, and so the red tartan provides a visual connection between the two characters. Lewis fans might also recognize the reference to how MacDonald’s writings had an effect on Lewis in real life.
Although the lack of contact between the actors was detrimental to some parts of the play (a fight at the beginning looks more ridiculous than anything else), the production made it work most of the time. In fact, in many cases the separation of the actors contributed to the dream-like quality of the story. The Narrator is a part of the story, but most of the time he, like the audience, just observes the other characters, and the distance reflects that.
In a virtual Q&A session with the audience after the livestream, writer Max McLean said adapting The Great Divorce was “super challenging”.
The big thing for us was to try to clarify it without simplifying it. And that’s a challenge, because Lewis is hard, and he has very profound thoughts. We felt obligated to be true to what he was trying to say without dumbing it down.McLean
FPA is currently developing plans to produce other plays in a virtual format. According to McLean, they are looking at the possibility of also airing their productions of The Screwtape Letters and Shadowlands.
FPA’s stage version of C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert is currently available to stream on RedeemTV. During the Q&A, McLean said the film version of Most Reluctant Convert will probably be available after Easter next year. Read NarniaWeb’s review of the play here.