Friday Mack Attack, 11/21
I know I'm late checking in this week, and I apologize. Again. But hey, at least I showed up for dessert.
This week I'm macking on what I'm also hating on: Theater about technology. So many playwrights use an old-fashioned linear narrative to tell an internet-based tale, a method that has so little to do with the actual use of the internet that it's almost infuriating. Okay, sometimes it's actually infuriating. But when techno-drama's done right, it makes you feel like you're surfing the crest of a rogue wave, allowed to see higher, farther and deeper than any human ought to be allowed. And that's a beautiful thing.
This reflection all came about because I saw Theatre Exile's production of Carlos Murillo's Dark Play last night and though I'm not reviewing it (you'll have to wait a day or so for Toby Zinman's assessment), I can't help but weigh in, since it deals with the same technological issues Brat Productions' User 927 tried to wrestle into submission earlier in the season. (My review of that play is here.) What's so interesting to me about these two plays is the way they attempt to capture the mercurial nature of the internet, which is essentially missing the point. Like mercury, the internet shape-shifts almost as soon as it's touched, let alone committed to old-fashioned paper. Remember chat rooms? Remember AOL, from the days when people used to pay for e-mail? Both plays do, and both playwrights are alarmed by the internet's most notorious episodes (waiting for the production about this next), and use them as the vehicle for Victorian-style cautionary tales. But the internet's a slippery creature, and a year or so after their respective premieres, both plays already read like time capsules.
During an interview today on a totally different subject, New Paradise Laboratories' Whit MacLaughlin--whose Fatebook, a performance about, yes, Facebook, is slated to premiere at the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival--summed up everything wrong with this type of drama. "People tend to gravitate toward the hysterical, but people were probably hysterical when Gutenberg printed the first bible." Exactly. Hysteria is generally only worthwhile when viewed in hindsight. It's why Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible without a role for Joe McCarthy, but plenty of room for the inhabitants of Salem, Mass.
So how ironic is it that the production I've seen that best expresses the banality of internet evil and its detached menace was Wooster Group's Hamlet? That's right, Shakespeare, once again, bitch slaps his pretenders and proves his enduring relevance (sorry Mr. Tynan, I know how you hated that term). He's really the only logical match for the internet, Godzilla to its Mothra, and he's the only playwright who could survive being refurbished from an analog relic into a prophet of the digital age.
Rather than spelling out technology's cold front for an audience, Wooster chooses the more elegant route. Their actors' eyes never meet, so busy are they tracking the multitude of screens and monitors surrounding them. It's the dramatic equivalent of teenagers who sit side-by-side texting one another. Hamlet's questions of identity were sent centuries ago, long before middle-aged men were IM-propositioning teenagers by pretending to be their peers. To be or not to be? That has always been the question, but online, it's even tougher to answer. Instead of picking a side, the best contemporary tech-based theater will function as an elastic exchange of information, adaptable, fluid, and impervious to hysteria.