The New Colossus, by Piedmont Laureate Tamara Kissane, is a compelling adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull for 21st-century America. And although this incarnation may not be as compelling to fans of Kissane’s contemporary stage adaptation, which premiered at Manbites Dog Theater and received critical acclaim in 2016, this audio drama may satiate the appetite of those mourning live theater experiences.
The two-hour drama, divided into six episodes, documents the life of tortured playwright Konrad; his muse Nina, an aspiring actress; his mother Irina, an over-the-hill star; and Irina’s lover Trig, a successful novelist.
The play pits the new generation against the old and sets modern art against traditional.
As Konrad experiments with artistic form and attempts to make a statement with his work, Irina encourages him to give up playwriting and focus on more practical matters, like making steady money and taking care of his ailing Uncle Sorin.
Meanwhile, as Nina dreams of becoming a successful actress, Trig struggles to find genuine inspiration and chases faded glory. Trig, a commercial success, has lost his muse, while Nina, a nobody, is easily able to access her emotions.
Millennials are also put under a microscope in this play. Konrad and Nina pursue their dreams with the fervor of the truly ambitious, while older characters question why they are so unhappy with their lot in life.
When Konrad finally finds success, it’s as an internet personality, through a bombastic, shallow podcast. Nina, who wants to be immortalized in art, becomes famous but is eventually crushed beneath the weight of public scrutiny and judgment.
At the heart of the play is a question — is it worse to follow your dreams and fail, or regret never having tried at all? Sorin, who observes from the sidelines, evaluates life with the clear eyes of someone now too old to live it.
“I wanted to be a published author, but I never wrote a single word,” he says, in the play’s final episode. “Youth is wasted on the young.”
The play is truly character-driven, exploring the inner lives of those on stage. But without being able to see the actors, some of the “visuals” that would otherwise draw an audience in, get lost in dead air space, and it becomes hard to track the on and off-stage action. Some dynamics between characters are likewise blunted when characters don’t inhabit a physical space.
However, where the audio drama does succeed is in creating a play within a play. Throughout The New Colossus, characters put on performances of their own, starting with Konrad. Sound effects, music, and strong vocal acting allow one to visualize the performance. Listeners can also hear characters speaking in their “stage voices,” and later speaking in a different tone.
The way characters sound in the presence of others creates a great contrast between performance and reality, highlighting moments of honesty. The play’s interlude — Episode 3 — is its strongest part, giving listeners a peek behind the curtain.
For a moment, Irina’s entertainer persona drops in the presence of her old friend Paulie, and they have a frank conversation. We also see the truth of Trig, who in public appears to be a charming, witty bestseller and in private is desperate for affirmation.
Appropriately, the play’s rare experimental moments land better than it’s many classical moments. Where traditional interpretation of the play fall short in the audio drama format, unconventional elements like Kondrad’s podcast are strong bridges for a contemporary audience.
The New Colossus audio drama is rated R for content. For more infromation (or to listen to the audio drama), visit: https://www.thenewcolossuspodcast.com/.
To listen to RDU on Stage’s interview with Tamara Kissane, visit: https://beltlinetobroadway.org/2020/04/06/live-chat-virtual-talk-back-with-piedmont-laureate-tamara-kissane/.