With their scaly bodies and spiky snouts, pangolins aren't the cutest mammals. Yet, one of the most indelible characters in Claudia, A Viral Love Story—a five-episode audio play commissioned by Profile Theatre—is a French-speaking pangolin (Val Landrum) that connects a series of vignettes about life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pangolin's presence signals that most of the nine writers who contributed to Claudia (Hansol Jung, Hilary Bettis, Dan Kitrosser, Harrison David Rivers, Christopher Oscar Peña, Philip Dawkins, Jason Grote, E.M. Lewis and Anna Ziegler) are feeling playful—but not playful enough. Claudia has big ideas, beautiful performances and a succulent soundscape, but some audiences may wonder if its tidy storytelling matches our apocalyptically messy moment.
Claudia begins in December 2019 at a seafood stall in Wuhan, China, which is about to be closed. That's where we meet the pangolin, who is in a pocket belonging to Momo (Barbie Wu), the granddaughter of the man who runs the stall (Francis Jue). Their banter, written by Jung, is so loose, real and affectionate (when marriage is brought up, Momo's grandfather cheekily ribs her about her "fight for ultimate love") that you don't want it to end.
Yet the play turns out to be a series of endings. In the second scene, written by Bettis, Momo is in Tehran, where she bestows the pangolin on Atoosa (Kristina Haddad), who runs an airport cafe. This brings the pattern of the play into focus—we watch as the pangolin is passed from person to person, becoming our window into tales of the outbreak.
Claudia was inspired by playwright Paula Vogel's COVID-19 bake-off, a prompt calling for a team of writers to concoct a play in 48 hours using a list of narrative "ingredients," which include everything from a sick immigrant working at Mar-a-Lago to the repetitive structure of Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde. It's an ingenious idea, since no single person's story could have captured the pandemic of helplessness and terror that has spread as rapidly as the coronavirus.
Those feelings haunt Jung's and Bettis' scenes, which form the first episode. Yet in the second episode, the play's realism is ruptured by bafflingly bad dialogue. To be absurd is to be human, but Atoosa's campily sensual declarations ("Praise Allah, my pomegranates can finally hang" is the most memorable) turn a complex character into a cartoon.
Atoosa's anguish is amplified by her husband, Babak (Doren Elias), who forsakes her and their children to live in Milan with his lover (Amir Arison). Babak's desire to selfishly seize the moment is understandable, but something is off about this storyline. Like too many of the characters in Claudia, Babak is blandly self-aware ("I cry out because I have left my family to die," he moans). Where, you wonder, are the panicky people too confused and terrified to analyze themselves?
Claudia desperately wants to understand the essence of life during COVID-19, but to seek understanding is to seek control. That's a problem. Great art demands more honesty and less control—and an honest play about the coronavirus would be freakier and zanier. The way that Claudia moves neatly from character to character could never have evoked the crazed desperation that so many of us are feeling.
Yet Claudia rewards your commitment. The actors thrive (especially Wu as the effervescent Momo and Kitrosser as a whiny screenwriter) and Matt Wiens' sound design makes the play a world unto itself. From the turn of a key to the shattering of glass, no detail is left unnoticed. He and the cast ensure that even when the play falters, it doesn't lose your focus (plus, if you stick with it, you'll get to a zesty subplot about a conspiracy to infect Donald Trump with the virus).
Claudia may not reflect the reality of 2020 as clearly as it wants to, but the play earns the right to be listened to and thought about. You could fill a lonely day with a lot worse than an ambitious, imperfect work of art that leaves you wondering what unimaginable horrors and unlikely wonders the pangolin will witness next.
LISTEN: Claudia, A Viral Love Story streams at