The pangolin is a small scaled mammal (the only scaled mammal, to be exact) native to Africa and Asia. Scientists in China have been looking into this creature as the link that spread COVID-19 to humans. Pangolins’ scales are valued by traditional Chinese medicine, and the trade in these animals may have brought them into contact with humans at the Huanan Market in Wuhan. A pangolin is also the titular character for Profile Theatre’s first audio play, Claudia, A Viral Love Story.
Based on a playwriting prompt from Paula Vogel, Profile commissioned nine writers to craft a story using a list of prompts that spans the globe. At a time when theater everywhere is on hold, it’s both a bold and risky move: How can a company reproduce the feeling of live theater when people can’t gather together? What tools do they have available that they can use? And how can they deliver it to their audience? Audio drama, delivered via streaming, seems a viable option.
How has the experiment worked out? Profile has released all five episodes now (you can listen to or download them here), so you can see the show in full. The shows are free, but Profile is urging donations to help Cascade AIDS Project. From Wuhan, to Tehran, to Mar-A-Lago and onward, each writer builds off the last’s work and takes the story in a new direction. Split into five 20-ish minute episodes, the exquisite corpse structure means Claudia, A Viral Love Story is both surprising and uneven.
Claudia (voiced by Val Landrum) is the main connective thread through the story. The pangolin, who is French, is passed from character to character across the globe, mirroring the spread of the virus. Similar to the virus, they leave the personal lives of the characters in chaos. Claudia’s motives are their own. Or perhaps they have no motives. They are simply a force of nature and we project our own obsessions onto their actions.
This is what makes Claudia, A Viral Love Story struggle. It’s held together with so little. The play opens at the Huanan Market before Wuhan goes into lockdown. The scene, written by Hansol Jung, is an exchange between an elderly fish-seller and his granddaughter who has discovered Claudia. Anna Ziegler ends the story back where Jung began it, in that same market, as Wuhan begins to open up. Now the granddaughter is reunited with her mother. There’s a built-in sense of completeness in this structure, returning to where we started. Ziegler uses the framework to her advantage, capturing that sense of possibility that comes from surviving a crisis, but it’s not built from the sum of all that came before it.
Eschewing a linear narrative in favor of a mosaic of small interconnected stories seems like the right approach for writing about a global pandemic, but it falters here. At times the different voices of the writers works against each other. Hillary Bettis introduces a cafe owner in Tehran working to keep herself together through denial. In the next scene Dan Kitrosser turns her into a self-obsessed woman prone to overwrought musings. Her husband is introduced as a man clear-eyed to the danger of the pandemic but thrilled by the chance to start a new life freed from tradition. But in the next scene Harrison David Rivers undoes Kitrosser’s work.
In a satirical turn, Christopher Oscar Peña reveals an elaborate plot to assassinate the president at Mar-A-Lago. Jason Grote takes the next scene into a prison, where the alleged assassin tries to sell the movie rights to her story to a screenwriter. It’s estimated that more than half a million people have died worldwide of COVID-19 and the pandemic may continue for another year. The economic devastation to people is incalculable. Everywhere people are struggling with how to live in this world, to actually stay alive and to navigate an existential crisis. All of that is pushed aside for a few laughs and feels extraneous by the time the show ends. In this way the format of Claudia, A Viral Love Story works in its favor – breaking up the episodes makes the constant shifts in tone less jarring.
Phillip Dawkins then sends the screenwriter into madness, confronting the magical pangolin in a scene that is both baffling and cathartic as Claudia is finally given space to speak. The pangolin lashes out at the man for attempting to bring meaning to the events unfolding in his life. The frenzied energy between the playwright (voiced by Kitrosser, doing double duty) and pangolin captures something vital that the rest of the play skirts: anger and desperation.
There are bright spots in Claudia, A Viral Love Story. The individual scenes may not always complement each other, but they stand on their own. Barbie Wu as “Momo,” who has the largest recurring part in the show, deftly balances the everyday concerns of a young woman with the surreal nature of the world she inhabits. And Doren Elias gets across the vulnerability and conflicted nature of a man torn between opposing desires and responsibilities. Sound design and original music by Matt Wiens always complement the scenes.
Similar to the tone of the work, the quality of the audio also varies from episode to episode. While some scenes sound like the characters exist in the same space, in others the experience becomes like listening to different audio tracks smashed together. Too often the performances come off as stilted or out of synch. The challenge of audio dramas is that there is only the audio – and if it’s not done well, or at least consistently, it breaks the immersion.
It makes sense for theater companies to move to audio dramas, and Profile is on to something making this move. But this medium is not the same as live theater: It requires a different way of thinking, and different production techniques. People might think of audio dramas as an old medium to be revived, but the genre is already in a renaissance. There are already dozens of audio drama podcasts, of every style, and of excellent quality. Claudia, A Viral Love Story is an interesting exercise, but in the end it doesn’t create something larger than the sum of its parts.