Review: Book Wings transcends national borders


Borders are a thing of the past. With the advent of the Internet, person-to-person interaction is measured in clicks rather than miles. An article published by a local newspaper can be read anywhere with an Internet connection. Celebrities do video Q&As with fans from all over the world. And “Book Wings South Africa” managed to perform a single live show in two theaters at once.

Book Wings is a program aimed at bringing together actors, writers, and directors from around the world. In this case, actors on stage in Cape Town, South Africa, collaborated live with those in Iowa City to bring audiences in both locations a single live event.

Six shows were performed, three on each stage. A projector aimed on the wall at the back of the theater displayed the other stage 9,000 miles away. The event began with “Waiting for Marcel,” a play performed in Cape Town, and it was followed by “Sicawa Street,” staged in Iowa City.

Novel and innovative as the idea and execution are, technicalities ingrained in the event’s nature detracted somewhat from the performances, especially when judging the show as a stage performance. 

While the Internet connections permitting audiences to see both stages only had rare noticeable flaws in its visuals, a bigger problem surfaced. Whether it was the quality of the camera or the connection, it was nearly impossible to make out actors’ faces during their performances. 

This was less evident in “Waiting for Marcel,” the first and possibly best of the six performances. A tree with a single leaf offered a clear visual setting, the scene was staged so that there was almost constantly physical motion, and the dialogue was crisply written and clearly delivered. Overall, it was a rounded and enjoyable experience.

Alternatively, the last performance showed clear pitfalls when not watched in person. “Invisible Eden” was lost on me, though not through any noticeable fault of the actors or writing. Music was played over the whole of the show and made the dialogue muddled and hard to hear. When I attempted to see to the actors’ faces to get a sense of what their characters were feeling, the slight visual blur of the video made empathy impossible.

These problems were absent from the three plays that were performed live on stage (though I can’t say how well they fared in the transition to video; we’d have to call our South African counterparts for that perspective). The only aspect that caused the live performances to sag was the presence of a script onstage by one of the actresses appearing in two of the three plays. While she gave a more than serviceable performance, the script persistently barred me from becoming fully engrossed.

With that said, shifting from stage to screen was never jarring or disorienting. Rather, it added a greater sense of mystery to what might appear next. The theme of “release” around which the event was built made some of the endings easy to predict, but it didn’t take away from the power behind moments such as a stage fading to black as a heart monitor holds a morbid final note. 

Even with the overarching theme, a few of the endings were appropriately surprising, as exemplified in “The Disappointment,” a play about a father hoping to free his wife from perpetual dotage by smothering his crippled son.

Book Wings South Africa gave audiences in two different countries some of the same experiences, showcasing what both communities were able to produce. The result is a unique event allowing audience to see how strong narrative crosses cultural boundaries. While the event never approached perfection, it was continually fascinating to see modern technology integrated with stage performance with such simple elegance.

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