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Real Issues on a Virtual Set

A play about technology and pregnancy relies on computers for the backdrop. How fitting.

October 14, 2001|HUGH HART | Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

"This is bizarre," Richard Kind said to no one in particular as he stood onstage the first day of rehearsals for "Perfect."

Who could blame him? The "Spin City" actor was momentarily distracted from his line reading by the sight of his own face, looming 10 feet tall on the walls behind him. Regrouping, Kind settled into the scene, even as every twitch, blink and arched eyebrow showed up on the scrim, magnified 15-fold.

"Perfect," a new play by writer-producer-actor Mark Kassen, runs through Nov. 11 at the Tiffany Theater. In it, a scientist (Kind), a control-freak mother-to-be (Judy Greer) and her husband (Kassen) try to create the "perfect" baby via chromosome manipulation. The biotech corporation handling the impregnation procedure is making a documentary about their experience, screened simultaneously in epic-scale as the story plays out onstage.

Layered on top of the live video is a fluid mix of still images and documentary footage streaming from robotic projectors. The set is composed of two chairs, a table, and one computer disc packed with "media."

What's so bad about nails, lumber and paint?

Kassen said he needed a setting that would reflect the play's high-tech themes. "What happened was, we wanted to tell the story, which is really about technology and humanity evolving together," he said, digging into a bag of pretzels from the back of the darkened theater. "And as we developed the piece, we wanted to do the telling of it in a way that metaphorically mirrored what it was in the story. We went out, and said, 'OK, what's out there? A slide projector and a video camera. Let's go from there."'

While Kind and Greer rehearsed with director Charles Otte, a crew of techies, jammed into the theater's control booth amid a tangle of cords, tapped out instructions on computers, pushed buttons on mixing consoles and scrolled through images on the tiny monitor of a digital-video camera.

Noodling on a laptop computer: Greg Deocampo. A self-described "technologist-artist," Deocampo, 34, programmed the multimedia for U2's 1992 Zoo TV tour. After helping launch Internet company Ifilm, he and Ifilm founder Roger Raderman met a San Francisco ber-geek named Travis Threlkel and decided to go into a new business: virtual reality. Their company, Obscura Digital, designs the software and projectors that synchronize the timing and placement of "Perfect's" digital scenery.

"Travis is a genuine visionary-mad scientist-genius guy," Deocampo said, "and he had this notion of how to inexpensively create VR illusions that were being very expensively deployed at places like NASA. One of the first things we're doing with it is 'Perfect.' We saw this as an interesting opportunity to synthesize some of the qualities of cinema with theater. And that's what is going on here."

Raderman, 33, who left Ifilm about a year ago and now lives in Los Angeles, cheerfully admitted his theater background is limited to a "Pirates of Penzance" role in high school. "But I've always wanted to get involved in something very raw and exciting and human," he said by phone from Obscura headquarters in San Francisco. "This will get us into the Los Angeles community and show people how projection can be used for theater in new ways. It becomes another discipline within the construction of a play. The set designer is now working with video rather than with sets; that's one way of looking at it."

Like Raderman and Deocampo, video artist Jonas Goldstein, 28, is another refugee from the dot-com meltdown--he served as creative director for the once-hot, now-defunct Web site before moving west from New York a year ago. For "Perfect," Jonas shot video footage of sushi bars and office buildings around Los Angeles that can now be projected as backgrounds for scenes in the play.

Hunched over the tiny monitor of a digital camera, the goateed artist, who uses only his first name professionally, said some of the backdrop imagery does more than set the scene. "Once in a while, we do some subversive stuff--we'll cut these things in randomly throughout the piece as a kind of subjective wash. So if they're talking about babies, we might throw in fetal or sperm imagery or"--courtesy of Jonas' infant daughter--"a baby head."

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