“These films were made by theater people.”
It’s just one line of text on the Exponential Festival website, explaining the provenance of a pair of video shorts in the lineup: zestfully odd and playful mash-ups of the first piece in Samuel Beckett’s doom-laden prose collection “Texts for Nothing,” from a company called Accent Wall Productions.
Yet that simple declarative statement gets to the crux of the matter, which is that the experimental artists behind “The Puzzlers” and “The Puzzlers 2: Black Box” — notably including Jess Barbagallo and Emily Davis — know who they are, which shut-down art form they miss with a piercing longing and which different kind of work they’re making in the meantime.
And they’re channeling into it a heightened, deadpan loopiness that elicits belly laughs.
These two are the best of the handful of shows I watched at this year’s free, online festival.
In “The Puzzlers,” an actor named Jay (Barbagallo, who shares the writing credit for both scripts with Beckett) is at home in Brooklyn with his acting coach (Lucy Kaminsky) and his dog (Bluet), struggling to memorize a section of “Texts for Nothing.” His grown daughter (Davis) interrupts, scandalized that he spent $7.49 on a little tub of almond pesto.
“I’m an artist. I’m not a professional grocery shopper,” Jay says, attacked. “I’m just a guy, trying to learn a monologue, because it’s been a really long time since he applied himself to anything.”
However unobtrusively, this is clearly a pandemic piece. On the festival website, Accent Wall Productions describes itself as “a survival-based art collective formed between four friends and a dog in March 2020.” The fourth human member of the group, André Callot, is credited as the editor of “The Puzzlers 2,” in which he also delivers a wonderfully atmospheric voice-over monologue. (“How long have I been here, what a question, I’ve often wondered.” And so on.)
The second short is at least as friendly as the first but far more aching. Told in flashback, it achieves something I had not seen in all the deluge of video that has come in these past 10 months. Largely through black-and-white rehearsal stills of Barbagallo, Davis and Kaminsky, shot at The Brick in Brooklyn, it captures what theater feels like — the everyday incantation of it, and how unreachably far away that seems now.
These two “Puzzlers” pieces are the start of a projected series that will adapt all of “Texts for Nothing.” Yes, please. We need some more.
Elsewhere at the festival, the Fringe and Fur show “Madge Love” is billed as “an interactive theater-film hybrid.”
The thing about theater, though, is that once you take away the live acting and live audience, shoot the performance on video with tight frames and fast intercuts, then layer in voice-overs and a score, what you have is a film, not a hybrid.
Written and directed by Genee Coreno, with cinematography, animation and video editing by Dena Kopolovich, “Madge Love” is the story of Sissy (Arden Winant) and Madge (Lilja Owsley), teenagers with the kind of romantic streak that makes them love speaking bad French together.
They also have a fondness for the very creepy Catherine Deneuve movie “Belle de Jour.” Their moody passion for each other is all mixed up in what they’ve already learned about the connection between sex, violence and female suffering at the hands of men.
This is a good-looking production, beautifully lit by Marika Kent. The low-fi set (by Kent and Emily Greco) is the production’s most obvious remnant of theater: a metal truss standing in for a tree, a rippling blue tarp for water. We see painted cinder block walls, and the actors’ body mics. (The sound design and composition are by Coco Walsh.)
One disappointment: The interactivity turns out to be minimal.
“Animal Empire,” a digital mini-musical written, directed and produced by Yeujia Low, gestures not at all toward the stage. The story of an uprising against humans fomented by creatures of the farm and forest, it’s both strident and twee, and it makes the tactical error of opening on an off-putting note, with a character (represented, like most of the others, by an emoji head) doing bad vocal exercises.
It does, however, have very amusing singing cameos by a snail (Low) and a sloth (Jason Pu), who can be counted on to be late for everything. There is also a winningly intimidating boar (Patrick Sweeney).
A look at the script suggests that this version of “Animal Empire” is one draft of a more ambitious work in progress. For now, the best part is the rebellion itself, vividly animated like a music video, with animals fighting back everywhere.
It’s a little weird right now to delight at insurrection, but this one involves fish and geese and deer. And, hey, they are unarmed.
The Puzzlers + The Puzzlers 2: Black Box
Streaming at theexponentialfestival.org/thepuzzlersreturntentatively.
Streaming at video.eko.com/v/Ap6aRL.
Through Feb. 28; theexponentialfestival.org/animalempire.