StageDirect's Poona the Fuckdog
screening at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st, Fri-Sat 11:30 pm, one week only, $5

And now a word about the struggles of theater in this Modern Era, and a quirky little company with the power to ease those struggles, assuming it finds its way.

In 2001, the success of Theatre Vertigo's hilarious play Poona the Fuckdog caught the attention of the new local business StageDirect, which had a unique mission statement: to make high-quality digital video recordings of underground theater and distribute them to a wider audience via internet sales. A delirious blend of fantastical sex comedy and scathing social satire, Poona chronicles Poona the Fuckdog (Laura Faye Smith) as she climbs the fairy tale celebrity ladder by inviting important people to "play" in her magical "box." Meanwhile, a shrub (Keith Cable) comes to life and complains about playing a botanical entity, and the Kingdom's occupants elect a television (yes, a television) as the leader of their country.

Based on sheer entertainment value, few fringe theatrical works have been more deserving of increased public attention than Poona, and bless StageDirect for attempting to make it happen. In the years following the inaugural taping of Poona, the company has added five other cutting-edge dramatic works to its video library, merging live theater and mainstream digital technology in an ongoing attempt to keep the art form relevant to a new generation of viewers.

Of course, StageDirect doesn't state that goal on their website (

www.stagedirect.com ) or anything, but I feel compelled to assign it to them anyway because I think they have awesome potential. Plus, I've seen the Poona video and simply can't accept it in terms of sheer entertainment--I want StageDirect to have a loftier agenda than just the peddling of a middling recording of a play that no one outside of Portland has ever heard of. You see, even with the advent of fancy digital cameras and nifty editing techniques (StageDirect has both), it is impossible to transfer the vibrancy of any live performance (be it theater, music, juggling, or a flea circus) to a flat screen. Period. The camera dulls the atmospheric element of a theatrical setting and suppresses the reverberant sound quality that can only emanate from a stage. At best, StageDirect's highly professional DVD of Poona gives a hint at how entertaining the piece could be live; at worst, like all videos of its kind, it makes theater look a lot more amateurish than it really is.

StageDirect has a fantastic opportunity to reach out to those who would rather watch a screen than a stage, but selling video reproductions as entertainments in and of themselves is not the most efficient way to do it. Rather than market inferior versions of little-known plays to just anyone, why not focus solely on other theater artists, who already love the art form and who can determine the onstage quality of a production based on a lesser screen counterpart? Why not target theater companies from around the world, who could view the tapings as previews of works they might want to produce onstage in their own towns? In this way, StageDirect would still be distributing live theater to larger audiencesÉ but the audiences would get to see the productions as they are meant to be seen: in the theater, and not on television.

I see StageDirect's potential maximized via a sort of online agency that represents plays they love by sending out video reproductions, then collects a percentage of the royalties from theater companies who bite on the digital bait. At one time, the company's website featured a virtual Audition room and writers' room, where actors could place digital audition tapes, and writers samples of their work for theater companies to peruse and see if they wanted to hire them. StageDirect was, then, on its way to being a true worldwide web theatrical network, but sadly, both virtual rooms are now defunct, and it has become nothing more than a seller of theater on video at $24.99 a pop. When this critic saw Poona the Fuckdog in 2001, in the theater, the ticket cost $12, for a vivid live experience I will always remember. For $24.99, StageDirect could help send that live experience around the globe, as opposed to watering it down.