Jefferson White in The Man With the Flower in His Mouth

COVID-Classics: One-Act Plays For The Age of Quarantine

Various authors
Directed by Robert Barry Fleming

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

It should come as no surprise to anyone well-versed in the classics that what makes a great writer is the recognition of truths so universal that they transcend time and place, but this vivid and economical production illustrates that reality in stunning and impactful measure.

The Plague of Athens by Thucydides as performed by Kala Ross is a tidy opening salvo, the first-hand testimony to an insidious infection with a geographic spread of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. While it may not be as global as COVID, Ross gives Thucydides’ rich language an immediacy that belies its ancient origin.

Jefferson White’s intense performance of Luigi Pirandello’s The Man With the Flower in His Mouth in a stairwell is filmed in angles that keep retreating from him, underscoring the skeezy quality White gives this low-life who seems excited by the proximity to death and decay. This is a presentation that makes you grateful to not be in the same room as this character, and the camera’s point-of-view keeps withdrawing, emblematic of the character’s remove.

The importance of another restrictive location is also crucial to The Stronger by August Strindberg, as Jessica Wortham’s wife and mother melts down inside of her minivan. In fact, this is the first virtual theatrical effort that truly makes scenic location and single-frame composition a virtue springing from artistic choice rather than pandemic necessity.

Wortham registers her paranoia with such calculated intensity that director Robert Fleming Berry cuts to different angles to give the audience relief. Her rage over a husband’s betrayal becomes the fire in which she forges a new steel core of resolve, skirting madness before grounding herself in new purpose. As with most of the pieces included here. The presentation feels entirely of the moment. It could have been written yesterday.  

On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco by Anton Chekhov is given a slightly more academic tone, and as performed by John G. Preston, it strikes a tricky balance between the professorial and the confessional. Chekhov’s man is now an overworked stereotype: the anxious, milquetoast husband whose imagined escape from henpecked domesticity bubbles through the surface. It was for me the least successful piece of the evening, despite Preston’s careful reading, precisely because it didn’t rise beyond that familiarity.

The Breasts of Tiresias animated by Yehuda J. Husband

The final play, The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire, is bold and inventive in that it is animated by Yehuda J. Husband in striking rococo sensibility, and that it is also a bracingly relevant story for our current experience of gender identity. The depiction of gender transition is startlingly abrupt and politically declarative and it imagines a transference of reproductive equality that dips into the realm of speculative fiction.

Peter Hargrave, Brandon Meeks, Christina Acosta Robinson, and Ken Robinson are the voice actors, and the heady mash-up of racial and ethnic characteristics would seem to make it nearly impossible to not take offense, except that it also pulls no punches in how it conjures up associations with so many things happening in 2020. While I could easily imagine that Beasts could be the most off-putting material in the program for some audience members, it also takes the greatest risks, refusing to be theatre and giving no aid and comfort to ignorance. 

The whole thing is over in 43 minutes, and I commend Fleming for leaving us wanting more. I have no doubt that he could have mined classic texts for hours of such programming, but the brevity only affords more time to ponder on what we have witnessed here. I don’t think we can rightfully call this theatre, but it is certainly video that is created by theatre artists as opposed to being film. The production values are the best I have yet seen in virtual theatre production, with good lighting, sound design, and camera work.

More importantly, COVID-Classics speaks to us of the great weight that we are all carrying right now without contributing to our collective depression. That these long-deceased writers struggled to address the same issues we cope with today suggests that we will also survive and that the art we create will be our most enduring legacy.

COVID-Classics: One-Act Plays For The Age of Quarantine

Available through online streaming beginning September 18, 2020

Actors Theatre Direct

Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
502- 584-1205

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for