Review: La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Encounter’ creates intimacy through glass

Sixteen months after San Diego stages went dark, La Jolla Playhouse clicked a few lights on last week for the opening of “A Thousand Ways, Part Two: An Encounter.”

The Without Walls Festival production isn’t really a theatrical performance. It is — as the title attests — an encounter between two strangers in face masks communicating with the aid of a series of pre-printed cards through a sheet of Plexiglass. “An Encounter” is the second part of “A Thousand Ways,” a three-part interactive theater project created last year for pandemic-era audiences by the New York experimental theater troupe 600 Highwaymen.

The first part, produced last winter, was a phone call between two strangers, where a computer-assisted robot prompted a conversation between two ticket-buyers. Still to come in late fall will be part three, where the several hundred ticket-buyers who’ve taken part in the “Thousand Ways” journey gather together for an event at the Playhouse.

I found last winter’s phone call experience exhilarating and magical. It was a rare connection with another person during the deadly peak of the pandemic. The other woman on the line opened up about her childhood memories, her husband, her daughter and the things in life that made her most happy and sad. Sometimes that’s easier to share with someone you don’t know.

“An Encounter,” which continues through June 20, is just as cleverly written and designed as the phone call script, and it works to break down the barriers between two strangers. With the help of the cards, the man across from me and I finished each other’s sentences, sang “Jingle Bells,” laughed repeatedly and traced pictures together on the plexiglass panel. But because we were intentionally directed to arrive and leave at separate times, we never saw one another outside the room.

As in the phone call, the participants alternate in reading the cards, asking questions and acting out tasks. The most disappointing part of “An Encounter” is that the cards, almost without exception, allow the reader to ask only “yes” or “no” questions of the other person. Without that freedom to expand and share stories, the extra layer of intimacy allowed in the phone call was lost.

One thing I didn’t expect was how sad “An Encounter” made me feel for what has been lost since the pandemic arrived in March 2020. Nearly 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, physical encounters have become precious and theaters are hanging by a thread. Facing just one other theater fan in a face mask in a darkened room seemed to highlight what has changed.

Looking directly in a stranger’s eyes for an hour of one-on-one interaction may not be for everyone. My show companion seemed uncomfortable with the long eye-locks requested by the cards. But several hundred people are game for the challenge, so tickets to “An Encounter” are nearly sold out.

“A Thousand Ways, Part Two: An Encounter”

When: Show times vary, through June 20

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $25

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: lajollaplayhouse.org/wow-goes-digital/a-thousand-ways/




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