PROVO — Both written and directed by Gloria Bond Clunie, BYU’s streaming production of North Star is extremely relevant. The show depicts a mother remembering her childhood during in the civil rights movement of the 1960s in an attempt to figure out how to help her daughter deal with modern racism. In these flashbacks, a young Relia Taylor (played by Sariah Lyles) watches the people around her try to protect themselves and make their lives better, while also dealing with the rough bits of growing up.
Clunie’s script is poignant and compelling, and easily draws the audience into the story. The production of that script was not as compelling. From the very beginning of the performance all the actors start the show at such a high level of intensity, and there was nowhere for them to go from there. The climax of the play was at the same level of tone and energy as the very first lines of the play. There were happier moments that lowered the energy levels, and were just about being a child and having fun, but there was never any buildup to make the emphasize the emotionality of the intense moments. For that reason it was difficult to get immersed in the world of the play; it felt like the actors were retreading the same territory over and over.
Of course, Zoom theater never feels quite as enveloping as fully staged productions. There are the obvious reasons, like overlapping lines due to lag, or actors accidentally muting themselves. Samantha Daynes’s scenic design, consisting of simple blue backgrounds of various shades, left room for the audience’s imagination to wander, but needed to contribute more to the environment of the play. There were a few moments at the beginning of scenes where it was confusing to figure out where the characters were, other than the blue, square Brady Bunch world.
The program does not credit any lighting or costume designers, and these aspects of the production were wanting. Each actor’s face was lit completely differently, making it hard to believe they were supposed to be in the same room. Additionally, some costumes seemed out of place with the time and setting of the play. One of the most impressive parts though, was Willie’s black eye, which was incredibly realistic and something that will stay in my mind for a long time.
North Star is a very well-written and relevant play, but the way it functioned for this streaming version was somewhere between a staged reading and a fully-mounted production, and the show never seemed to know what it was. Maybe, without the conventions of props and sets, or actors being able to actually interact with each other, it would have helped to read stage directions aloud. Or maybe some plays work really well on stage, and not quite as well on Zoom.
I really did love the story of North Star, but the medium of Zoom, not having distinct set or prop pieces, and the level of intensity never really changing all made the production difficult to sit through. I look forward to BYU’s other streaming productions, though, and hope that one day I can see North Star in person.