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Review: Group.BR Presents Scenes From the Pandemic in Metanóia

The New York-based Brazilian theater troupe presents a short play in Downtown Live about what we've all been through this past year.

Debora Balardini stars in Group.BR's Metanóia, directed by Jonathan Hart Makwaia, for Downtown Live.
(© Maria Baranova)

Two friends, possibly carnival revelers, dance up a sweat under flashing multicolored lights at the beginning of Group.BR's Metanóia, now playing a loading dock at 4 New York Plaza as part of Downtown Live, a festival that invites New Yorkers back to the theater with a series of free live and in-person performances. The two friends promise to see each other again soon, but like a lot of us who said a cursory "goodbye" to our friends and co-workers in the early part of 2020, they clearly don't expect what comes next.

Occupying tiny make-believe apartments at the top of metal stairs on either side of the makeshift stage, Debora Balardini and Andressa Furletti play the two friends as they navigate their way through a year of sheltering in place. While Balardini's character makes to-do lists and reads Camus for insight on surviving a plague, Furletti's character nervously updates her social media feed looking for the latest prophecies of doom. Balardini's character invests in a collapsible green screen to create fun Zoom backdrops, while Furletti's character desperately paces her apartment looking for a decent Wi-Fi signal. This side-by-side juxtaposition feels like a Covid edition of the Goofus and Gallant comic strip from Highlights Magazine.

Balardini and Furletti are both gifted physical performers, able to convey their characters and the crux of the scene with few spoken words. Balardini's wide eyes and even wider grin betray a character who is not only surviving but thriving under lockdown. Furletti, on the other hand, stays in a constant state of agitated motion. Her nervous fidgeting is enough to give you flashbacks to last April.

The exaggerated physicality and vocal ad-libs of both performers give Metanóia the jokey feel of a Covid-inspired clown show. And while I have no doubt that humorists will find last year's whiplash of social expectation a rich source of material, the problem is that Metanóia just isn't that funny. Audience members politely chuckle behind their masks as Balardini writes out a nonsensical equation proving "the science" behind Covid, or as Furletti dons eight masks at once, but Jonathan Hart Makwaia's unfocused direction keeps the bits from landing the kind of belly laughter everyone desperately needs right now. Our eyes dart from side to side as we wonder where onstage we should be looking at any given moment. It is also unclear when the play means to be funny or serious, as in a later scene in which Balardini writes out the death toll by country while howling, "Why? WHY?!?!?!" à la Nancy Kerrigan.

All of it makes for slightly uncomfortable, but mercifully short viewing. After 45 minutes, a year has passed in the world of the play and the two newly vaccinated friends reunite with a hug. While the title seems to promise a spiritual conversion or charge of heart, I left Metanóia unsure of what exactly had changed about these characters after a year in lockdown.

One thing has changed about the theater, though: As a few intrepid venues (like this skyscraper loading dock) open their doors to audiences, an onsite bathroom is no longer a given. If you're traveling from afar to see something at any of the Financial District stages in Downtown Live, I would highly recommend using the public restroom at the Staten Island Ferry.

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