It is safe to say that we all know a bit more about being in isolation than we did before the pandemic. The Boston College Theatre Department's latest play, "IDK [What This Is]", gets to the heart of what it means to feel isolated. Written by alumna Maggie Kearnan MCAS ‘14 and directed by Scott T. Cummings, a long-time professor and director of numerous productions at Boston College, this play is being presented virtually from Feb. 25-28. Intense, terror-filled, and gripping, it explores themes of isolation and community, and it traces a search for self-discovery and fulfillment. Overall, the play was very enjoyable and thrilling to watch.
"IDK [What This Is]" features six characters: Beth, Alice, Hayden, El, Jay and Marci. The story is told through a combination of reminiscent narration and direct scenes, giving the audience a sense that the events of the play have happened at a previous time, and the characters are looking back. It begins with Beth, leading the audience in a meditation. “Close your eyes,” she tells us. The tone is unnerving from the onset. The other five characters soon appear and proceed to converse about some sort of gathering or retreat that they were all part of. The details start off as ambiguous, but some specifics begin to appear. Each character receives a brief introduction. Some know each other from college, others were childhood friends, others complete strangers. But each of them is lost in their own way, grieving some past sadness or facing some inner demon—or both.
Beth appears at the center, both literally and figuratively. She is the organizer, the one who brings the other five together. A name is never really given to her plan, other than “experiment,” or “community living.” The six characters, led by Beth, leave behind their old lives and live together in a large Wisconsin farm house. The plan is to stay for a year. As time progresses, isolation sets in. Privacy is stripped away, and rules are put in place that convey a sense of confinement. As an audience member, it feels as if the characters’ reality is slipping away, being replaced by confusion, agitation, and even a sort of madness.
Each of the actors gave a remarkable performance. Anxious anticipation permeated the experience, giving a sense of tension boiling up. The increasingly unnerving story along with the strong acting made intensity palpable through the screen. Additionally, the setup was very unique. The performance was virtual, so each of them had their own frame on the screen, most of the time showing just their faces and a unique background. However, they did all perform live and on the same stage, each inside a fully contained box with a camera. Lighting would adjust based on changing mood, as well as to signify which characters were interacting. This virtual medium made for a whole new experience and allowed the show runners to utilize effects that would not have been available in a conventional performance.
In a conventional sense, the set was limited. There were no chairs or tables or doorways that the actors could use to build a setting. The big Wisconsin farm house existed only in the descriptions that were given. But that was plenty to set a vivid scene. One of the characters, Alice, had a jigsaw puzzle in the background of her screen. On occasion, she would walk back and add a piece to this puzzle on the wall. While the exact meaning of this curious detail was left up to the audience’s interpretation, it added to the sense that these characters were puzzling their way through their own minds, figuring out who they were and what they wanted.
This play is not explicitly about the pandemic, but the two are inextricably linked. In his director’s note in the program, Cummings calls it “a play OF the pandemic.” In fact, according to this director’s note, the play never would have been written under different circumstances. There were plans to produce and perform another play by Kearnan called "Idawalley". But, in the wake of COVID restrictions, Kearnan and the department faced the challenge of creating a play that was adaptable to pandemic safety. In doing so, they created a play that could not only exist in COVID times, but could also dive into the deep and dynamic themes that have come to define our inner lives in times of pandemic isolation.
"IDK [What This Is]" may seem like a very grim tale. There were some scenes in which the eeriness of it all was like watching a horror movie. In one instance, Alice is asked to get into a crawl space as a form of punishment. In another, El is described as being covered in pig’s blood. However, not every aspect of this play is so unnerving. There are two underlying questions that Beth repeatedly asks the group to reflect on: What do you want the world to be, and what do you want to be in the world? This play is not just a simple horror story. The characters face deeper questions about themselves and about the world around them. They are searching for themselves in the midst of isolation and a period that feels frozen in time. And that is something that many of us can relate to coming out of the darker days of the pandemic.
Watching "IDK [What This Is]" was thoroughly enjoyable. It can’t have been easy to create such a unique production with the added challenge of COVID-19, and the department did a great job. The horror-filled aspects combined with the genuine searching for inner clarity provided a wholly unique, unforgettable experience.