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Orlando's Playwrights' Round Table tackle the creative conundrum of physical isolation 

In our abnormal new normal, theater artists are increasingly going online in an attempt to maintain a connection with their audiences, and in recent weeks we've seen a steady stream of live-streamed local entertainment. Several Orlando-area arts organizations including Central Florida Vocal Arts, Central Florida Community Arts, SAK Comedy Lab and Phantasmagoria are presenting regularly scheduled free live performances over the internet, while others like Timucua and Blue Bamboo are offering video recordings of past concerts. All these efforts are very much appreciated, but when entertainment experiences intended for the live stage are squeezed onto a computer screen, the results can sometimes be unintentionally depressing reminders of everything we've lost.

The Playwrights' Round Table, which has focused on producing original plays since its inception in 1997, decided to tackle this creative conundrum head-on. They put out a call for new scripts explicitly dealing with physical isolation during the coronavirus crisis under the theme "Connected Voices."

Readings of the nine selected shorts made their live debut online last Saturday night, and although there were a few inevitable internet glitches, the evening provided a glimpse of how theater can still reach out and touch us despite social distancing.

The program was bookended by Allison Stewart's Patterns Repeat, which begins with Rose (Magen Geluso) trying to convince her headstrong grandmother (Amy Barnickel) to heed warnings about the virus and stay home. The twist is that it's 1957, when an "Asian flu" swept America; when we return to the pair in the epilogue, it's a half-century later and their roles are reversed, with the now-grown Rose resisting her own granddaughter's pleas. The script's cyclical nature provides a spark of hope that we may survive the current apocalypse (if only so our descendants can go through this all over again in a couple generations), setting the tone for the eight shows in between.

Speaking of hope, I do believe our species will endure, if only because dating and romance remained central themes of several scripts. In Don Salvo's Love, Game, Match, Geluso and James Blaisdell are a pair of lovesick teens who rendezvous on a tennis court to pine across the net; Seconds by Ken Preuss depicts Jenny Ornstein and Katie Thayer on an adorable digital second date; and in Bethany Dickens' Over and Out, Thayer reconnects with her besotted BFF Blaisdell over their childhood walkie-talkies.

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Of course, relationships that are already rocky can become rougher under home confinement, and both Brianna Barrett's The Puzzle and Bethany Dickens' Alone, Together tackled the terrifying thought of being quarantined with your ex. Luckily, neither of the couples (Ornstein and Pablo Lorenzo; Lorenzo and Blaisdell) resorts to murder within the 10-minute running time. On the flip side, Above and Beyond by Bruce Karp envisions an even scarier scenario for married people: One spouse (Mark Davids) sick at home alone, while the other (Carla Ehlers) orbits the earth on a space station. Finally, Jeannette Dozier's darkly funny Through the Door recasts the same pair in a much more down-to-earth plot, as a hypochondriac seizes on his allergy symptoms as an excuse to lock his wife out of their bedroom.

Hands down, the most effective – and affecting – entry of the evening was A Call for Help by Katie Thayer. Carla Ehlers plays a depressed divorcee who tries to dial a suicide prevention hotline, and is accidentally connected to a bored IT technician (Bethany Dickens) instead. The concept could work even without the COVID-19 references, but Thayer cleverly uses the current situation to sharpen both characters' motivations. Dickens in particular gives an intense emotional performance that transcended the digital divide, giving me a visceral chill from afar, even on my living room couch.

"This came about because, like many other arts organizations, we wanted a way to participate and give back to our community by keeping people entertained," said PRT president Chuck Dent at the start of the stream. He went on to credit Bethany Dickens for coming up with the theme, calling the event "her brainchild." In addition to penning two of the plays and providing a standout performance, Dickens – whose day job is education coordinator for CFCArts – also organized the Streamyard-based feed, which looked far better than most Zoom shows I've seen, making her the program's MVP.

I'm as eager as anyone to get away from my screens, but if our current situation is going to have any sort of artistic silver lining, it will be because of groups like PRT who are experimenting with ways to keep sharing stories. If you want to support them and watch "Connected Voices" for yourself, visit youtube.com/theprtfl.

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This story appears in the April 15, 2020, print edition of Orlando Weekly. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider supporting this free publication with a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.

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