JANESVILLE

There are times in life when if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Right now, we are seeing a heavy dose of those times.

For those in need of some levity, local playwright Jim Lyke is offering “The Distancing Plays,” a play cycle premiering tonight at the Janesville Performing Arts Center. The presentation features three short comedies that depict Lyke’s hopefully far-fetched vision of what pandemic life might look like should our current “new normal” become permanent.

“Very early on in the pandemic, he (JPAC Executive Director Nathan Burkart) contacted me and asked if I could work on something in a sort of post-pandemic dystopian world that would be funny,” Lyke said. “He gave me the starter idea, and what I came up with was having different couples navigating life and love in really exaggerated times—not necessarily what we are doing now with distancing and masks. This is to the extreme ... to the ridiculous.”

Burkart, who is directing, sees the play cycle as a chance to entertain audiences using circumstances to which all patrons—socially distanced, of course—might relate.

“I wanted Jim to come up with an original play that involves masks to enhance the plot, not try to do ‘Death of a Salesman’ where the masks take away from the artistic vision,” he said. “I wanted a play where the masks and social distancing added to the storyline. I didn’t want a lot of COVID jokes but a comedy that laughs at the situation its characters are put into. And I wanted people to be able to relate and actually feel like they are participating.”

The three plays each focus on a common element of existence: life, work or love. In a nod to personal relationships and performer safety, actors in each play are members of the same family or are in committed relationships.

In the first play, “Viral Love,” a couple attempt to enjoy a night out at a fancy restaurant while complying with pandemic requirements. The second, “Halfway House,” is about a couple living together, yet separately, in a home literally divided by cellophane paper. The third, “The Sales Call,” reenacts the farcical tale of an employee trying to interact with co-workers during a Zoom meeting. Each play runs about 15 minutes.

“The characters are all part of the same world, but not in a linear way,” Burkart said. “There are three specific scenes, but the actors in each call back to talk to friends from the other scenes. There are also two cameo actors in hazmat suits who kind of run the operations for the show.”

Because a limited number of patrons will be allowed inside JPAC, there are plans to record the program and offer it online at a later date.

“As a playwright, you want your work seen by as many people as possible, and you want to get a response to it,” Lyke said. “But in 2020, you have to do stuff online. I get it. With the numbers surging ... I get it.

“One of the things I’m hoping is that, because it’s unique to have something like this that can be performed using couples or family members on stage safely, other theater companies or auditoriums will see it and pick it up,” he said. “It’s not about making money; I’ll give it to them. I just want to see theater thrive again.”

With 1.2 million people dead from COVID-19 worldwide, these plays in no way minimize the damage. They aim to bolster sanity and offer hope through humor.

Lyke hates the pandemic as much as you do.

“Who isn’t sick of this?” he said. “I’d love to be able to go out and hang with anybody I want, anywhere I want. We all just want to return to our normal lives.”

“Even after all this time, I still get out of my car, walk six steps and realize I have to go back and get my mask. You would think by now I would be programmed to grab it. I often think to myself, ‘I bet Batman doesn’t have this problem.’ He doesn’t get out of the Batmobile and say, ‘Damn, I forgot my cowl!’”

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