The Austin Chronicle

Penfold Theatre's Interactive Show The Control Group Lets You Fix the Future

The sci-fi drama by phone calls on you to correct a crisis in the time stream

By Robert Faires, October 23, 2020, Arts

Ever dream you could ditch this flaming mess of a year by pulling a Marty McFly and escaping through time? Well, guess what: Time is a hot mess, too!

That bulletin comes courtesy of our pals at Penfold Theatre, who have had plenty of their own excellent adventures in the time stream – the Edgar Allan Poe musical Nevermore, An Iliad, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and their holiday broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio, among others – so trust them to know if history's gone sideways. Still, there's no cause for concern: They have a team working to fix it. Only this team, the Control Group, needs your help.

Okay, it's a new production from Penfold, which is, like many theatre companies across the land, playing with plays that don't require a stage. Theirs, The Control Group: A Mission in Time, engages you dramatically through your mailbox and phone. Sign on for this immersive escapade, and you'll receive a dossier from the shadowy Control Group – covert watchdogs over time's flow – that lays out the crisis (an event in the future that could erase everything) and includes clues about it in a set of sealed envelopes. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (oh hell, you bought a ticket, of course you'll accept it), is to take a call from agency Director Dr. DeSouza five days in a row (same time every day!) so the director can update you directly on the mission's progress – sometimes with reports from Control Group agents scattered throughout history – and consult with you on what to do next.

Um, secret agents spread across history? To quote a couple of triumphant dudes: Most excellent!!!

The team conducting this time-bending experiment in interactive theatre is headed by Penfold Producing Artistic Director Ryan Crowder and playwright Monica Ballard. Their inspiration came from a project called The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries by Toronto-based company Outside the March. Anyone who signed up for it would be called by a "ministry inspector" once a day for six days to help that person solve a low-stakes mystery in their personal life – say, why their cat was acting weird or their toaster burns every third slice. Crowder and Ballard loved that piece's real-time aspect and person-to-person connection, so in conceiving an original play they could produce in quarantine, they adopted its structure. Ballard wanted to add a tangible element, hence the mailed document with sealed envelopes to be opened over several days. Then she and Crowder developed a story that would showcase her knowledge of history – hey, time travel! – and she wrote the script. Ballard's an old hand at interactive drama, having penned the audience-participation "Murder on the Rails" mysteries Penfold held aboard the Austin Steam Train Association's locomotive. But this project presented her with new challenges, being at once more epic and more intimate than the train-based shows. The mystery was larger in scope with more moving parts, while the interaction was purely one-on-one, actor to audience.

For Crowder, the larger scope and number of moving parts is unlike anything Penfold's done. This isn't simply directing a single cast doing a single show in a single day. Patrons have the option of eight time slots per week to receive calls from Dr. DeSouza (16 in the fourth and final week), so even though calls are just five to 20 minutes, that's still eight "shows" a night, with each involving live interaction with the person called and prerecorded reports from the time-tossed agents seamlessly woven in. ("That's harder to do well than you might think," Crowder says.) And to accommodate multiple callers in every time slot, seven actors are playing DeSouza. So Crowder had to rehearse two separate casts: the agents scattered through the past who recorded their parts and the seven agency directors who would perform the same material live. (Is that more Dr. DeSouzas than Doctor Whos?)

Fortunately, Crowder has assistance from his own team of experienced agents scattered through history – Penfold's history, that is. The Control Group draws on such fine talents as Judd Farris (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], 2010), Kim Adams (Ghosts, 2011), Brock England (A Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast, 2014), Jarrett King (Clybourne Park, 2016), and Kareem Badr (Woman in Black, 2017), among others. Thanks to the show's audio format, some could literally phone in their performances from far away: Adams from New York City, King from Chicago, Jose Villareal from L.A.

So Crowder's deep dive into time travel isn't because he wanted to pull a Marty McFly on 2020 (though he admits to having started the summer by seeing a drive-in screening of Back to the Future). Rather than escape this hot-mess year, he was interested in explaining it. He and Ballard, he says, "had the same sense I think many of us have, that 2020 is off-the-charts crazy-go-nuts. This play provides a sci-fi reason for why that might be the case. It also makes some suggestions about what we might do to cope with it. I like that a lot."

The Control Group: A Mission in Time
Oct. 19-Nov. 16

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