Philly’s Wilma Theater makes a historic move with its first aural drama, “Is God Is”

In its theatrical presentation starting today, July 23, this bizarre revenge dramedy, will now be heard as an audio play.

Within its C-19 abbreviated season, Broad Street’s experimental Wilma Theater has already made great strides – a new, socially distanced design for what’s being called “Globe Wilma,” the airing of an iPhone recorded, two-man drama “Code Blue,” the benefit streaming presentation of the racially motivated “Kill Moon Paradise” with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter Philadelphia. 

From July 23 to July 26, only, the Wilma presents a production long-intended for its live stages, Aleshea Harris’ blood-and-violence driven, Obie Award-winning darkly comic drama, “Is God Is.” Directed by one of the Wilma’s new Artistic Directors, James IJames, and aborted in its live rendition this spring due to COVID-19, the show stars Brett Ashley Robinson (“Describe the Night”) and Danielle Lenée (“My General Tubman”) as twin sisters pushed by their mother to take to the road on a trip with sinister intentions. 

“Is God Is” Theatrical Poster.

What has changed, however, about this “Is God Is,” in its theatrical presentation starting today, July 23 (available to stream until Sunday via www.wilmatheater.org with tickets starting at $10 as donations) is that the bizarre revenge dramedy, will now be heard as an audio play, an old school, cinematic atmospheric radio drama – a first for the Wilma.

Recorded with its actors and director in isolation, Thom Weaver, the original set and lighting designer for “Is God Is” (among other Wilma productions) talked about this production’s transition from stage show into radio theater.

“It was a confluence of events,” said Weaver. “The ‘Is God Is’ team had a fully designed, fully realized production ready to go into rehearsal. The set was just about to be built (sketch enclosed), costumes (by Keyonna Butler) ready, the whole thing. Then COVID hit and we scrambled to find any way to do it. Jorge was brought in to maybe create a video project, and we spent a lot of time working on it. Every Saturday morning for months. But we arrived at a place where we just realized that logistically, we couldn’t pull that off.  Simultaneously I was working with Brenna Geffers at Die-Cast (a production company shared with Geffers) to create The 2X2L Programme, a radio-theatre division of Die-Cast. Chris Sannino came on as engineer and producer as well, and we created a pretty successful demo with the company recording from their own homes. It was a lot of work and logistics, but we pulled it off, and the success of it allowed us to come to The Wilma and offer that as a solution to Is God Is.”

Vector Drawing of Theatrical Production.

With the help of Chris Nelson (production manager for the Wilma) and Daniel Ison, (the show’s sound designer), Weaver’s team distributed gear and sound-proofing to the cast and got to work. “It was a lot, a lot of work. But thankfully, and with the energy and patience of everyone involved, we pulled it off. It represents the willingness of everyone to continue to fight for this work, for this play. We can have very easily given up, but no one would allow that to happen.” 

Giving agency to the imagination, IJames’ originally conceived direction and Aleshea Harris’s text already lends itself to radio theatre in a really exciting way in Weaver’s opinion.

“So much of the language is about conjuring or summoning imagery anyway. It’s very image-heavy. And it’s broad and wide in its scope. It travels great distances, geographically, and emotionally. It has this incredible Spaghetti-Western vibe. It’s a comedy and a revenge-tragedy. The actors are so gifted they were able to conjure that imagery in the listener’s imaginations in really compelling ways. And Chris Sannino and Daniel Ison create such a complex, detailed soundscape (with Daniel’s music). It really is a feast for the ears and mind. (Keyonna Butler, costume designer) created laid the foundation for what you’ll hear on the radio. I think that really says something about the design process, in a way. It raised the questions and ideas and themes that proved to be critical in our recording, even if the actual visual elements never manifested. It’s hard to explain that kind of alchemy.”

Danielle Lenée and Brett Ashley Robinson.

And what should listeners expect from the Wilma’s first audio drama?

“A huge, nuanced, complex, funny, violent, beautiful, cinematic, thrilling experience,” according to Weaver. “And brilliant, brilliant words by Aleshea Harris. If anyone is under the impression this is just simply a recorded reading of the play, they’re in for a big surprise.”

“A huge, nuanced, complex, funny, violent, beautiful, cinematic, thrilling experience,” according to Weaver. “And brilliant, brilliant words by Aleshea Harris. If anyone is under the impression this is just simply a recorded reading of the play, they’re in for a big surprise.”

Images: Wide Eyed Studios.

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