Written by Krista Knight
Virtualized by Krista Knight and Barry Brinegar
Presented by No Puppet Co. via YouTube
While there have been some stirrings of in-person theater in New York City recently, either outdoors or limited to one or two audience members at a time, drama remains overwhelmingly in the virtual realm. Krista Knight is among the innumerable playwrights who were forced to find new ways to share their work with audiences when theaters began to close their doors due to the pandemic. In the case of Knight's Crush, one of the six winning works of the 45th Annual
Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival, Knight and partner Barry Brinegar's No Puppet Co. turned a canceled in-person run at the festival into a "video puppet play" available on YouTube in six episodes. To create the play's central performance, Knight and Brinegar used VR equipment to "puppeteer" the play's protagonist and matched this live animation with a remotely recorded vocal performance by Ben Beckley (you can get a peek behind the scenes of Crush's creation by going to Knight's YouTube channel or searching "CRUSH process video" on YouTube).
The aforementioned protagonist of Crush is a beat-poet-esque cockroach wearing a tiny beret and, in the first scene, holding a cigarette (or maybe it's also a roach). It's a tall order to make New Yorkers like a cockroach, but Beckley's personality-filled performance and some imaginative visuals succeed. The unnamed cockroach admires the tenant of the apartment that, in his view, they share from what is simultaneously afar and intimately close. His attraction is not, we learn, lessened by his consciousness of its danger (a relatable position, no doubt, for at least some humans as well and responsible for the dual sense of the play's title).
The six episodes of Crush correspond to scenes in a traditional, in-person play, and they not only sketch the roach's relationship to the tenant, to the other roaches in the apartment, and to his own mortality, but one scene also basically constitutes in its entirety an electronic remix. While that scene's single line is the most extreme example, the dialogue periodically makes effective use of repetition throughout, in keeping with its beat feel, and ultimately throws a welcome dash of discomfort into the endings of this offbeat, humorous presentation of a one-sided relationship. The visuals keeps the point of view on roach level throughout, with glimpses of towering, shadowy legs in one scene, and the jazz-inflected music varies from funky to chill to, in part four, dissonantly experimental—matched there visually by engaging experimentation with editing and color.
Turning the pandemic's lemons into animated anthropomorphic lemonade, Crush's video puppet play offers clever, bite-sized (or is it bug-sized?) experimental virtual theater. All episodes of Crush, each between roughly two and five minutes in length, are available on Krista Knight's YouTube channel. You can go directly to the six-part YouTube playlist at: Crush After watching it, maybe next time you'll even ponder the existential disposition of that roach you just squashed. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler