Prior to last week's opening of PostSecret: The Show at Booth Playhouse, the only theatre production I'd ever seen based on a website was My First Time, which I first disliked Off-Broadway in 2008 before a less repellent version played here at Actor's Theatre in 2010. So the idea of transforming a website into a stage presentation is neither new nor thunderously popular. But the new show, workshopped in Cincinnati and presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts, is a far worthier enterprise - and it doesn't misrepresent the site that inspired it.
MyFirstTime.com was - and is - a salacious site whose seasoned users are likely to take voyeuristic pleasure in the reminiscences posted there, while newbies might be motivated to lose their virginities post haste. Ken Davenport not only dredged up a few tender and romantic posts from what he must have perceived as a cesspool of thousands, he gave his gleanings a decidedly Christian tang that decried and punished pre-marital sex. Quite a hoot when you see that the homepage bears the Playboy Bunny seal of approval.
PostSecret.com was started by Frank Warren, one of four writers who collaborated on the script, so PostSecret: The Show loses nothing in translation. In fact, it gains. While the MyFirstTime site has a ratty, monochromatic look, all print on a parchment background, PostSecret is arty because Warren is posting postcards, most commonly photos and greeting cards that have been altered by anonymous confessions affixed to these media with sharpies or pasted type like a ransom note. An animation team gives the cards added pizzazz, so they have the pop of a PowerPoint presentation when they're projected rather than simply lying on the page as they do online.
The writing team doesn't merely mine the juiciest secrets Warren has received by snail mail over the past decade, they also delve into PostSecret's chat room and exhume some of the secrets that sparked the most provocative and heartwarming responses. These makeshift forums and dialogues are where the cast of three actors are most invaluable. The "community" section also seems to spawn the longest narratives, somehow exclusively by women, so Birgit Darby and Kerry Ipema are excelling more than JR Adduci.
Darby and Ipema also seem more comfortable addressing the audience, although it's Adduci who is most involved in the audience interaction. It's a wonder that any of these performers appears relaxed under the stiff and unimaginative stage direction of co-writer TJ Dawe, whose bio boasts extensive experience writing and performing autobiographical monologues but none directing them. Just being spontaneous doesn't seem to be an option when performers, starting from a fixed spot, are called upon to step forward or traverse the stage, deliver their lines, and return to their places.
If PostSecret: The Show is headed for a national tour or for New York, Blumenthal could find more than a couple of directors right here in town who could do a far superior job.
There's also a segment, soon after intermission, that obliges the cast to deceive the audience - not the best way to dispel performance anxiety. Purporting to read audience secrets gathered from a mailbox in the Booth lobby where we've deposited our postcards, Ipema read the same postcard to kick off the bit and Darby read the same finisher both times I attended, and at least one other card sounded familiar in between.
Such chicanery further degrades the product, but on balance, I liked The Show. Though they needn't have, I was gratified to find that Adduci, Darby, and Ipema had all refreshed their own personal secrets the second time I saw them. While the site's motto, "Free your secrets and become who you are," probably overstates the benefit of posting most of the time, the actors and the AV make a solid case for a more modest takeaway.
Over and over, writers of the secrets that flash onto the screen above the actors have learned that they are not alone - a realization that happens spontaneously at the Booth as people in the audience inwardly recognize a secret onscreen that they've never divulged. Apparently, the most universal at Warren's site, we learn early on, are variants of "I pee in the shower."
Even when secrets are less universal, confessors can be deluged with sympathy, empathy, and even unsolicited financial help. Darby's most effective monologues were written by a woman who had suffered from mental illness and by a mother who, after giving her daughter one of the PostSecret books collected from the site, suffered the heartbreak of learning that both her daughters had been molested by her husband. Ipema told a couple of more positive stories, one about an anorexic teen who couldn't submit her secret to PostSecret.com but wore it instead on a tee-shirt to school. The other is an episode occasioned by a card posted by someone who intended to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
With a pre-show and intermission Twitter feed - plus a selfie instigated by Adduci during the break - we're reminded how much more communicative and intrusive our lives have become, interacting night and day with the cloud. But Post Secret: The Show also demonstrates how near at hand feedback, empathy, community, and healing can be when the ventilating of human suffering happens within the right architecture. Warren, the Steve Jobs of empathy, has obviously cared about getting it right.
Some hearty belly laughs are also dispensed during the 104-minute show, at no extra charge.