Results tagged “user 927” from Drama Queen

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. 

Ham2190.jpg
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.
November 20, 2008 11:00 PM |
user927.jpgLast night I saw User 927, a new play commissioned by Philly's Brat Productions, that before its opening garnered quite a bit of national press. Its central conceit derives from a 2006 news story about AOL's release of 650,000 of its members' search logs. The most notorious of these, its searcher anonymously coded as User 927, tracks three months of steadily escalating perversions that start innocently enough with "Yoko Ono" and end somewhere around "F*** Her Throat" (my asterisks). 

The actual production, which I review in Friday's Inquirer, didn't go so well, at least according to me. But Brat artistic director Michael Alltop was onto something. Unfortunately, playwright Katharine Clark Gray chose to couch the subject in a fairly conventional murder-mystery, a choice which quickly waters down the topic's potency, and leads me to wonder why Alltop didn't choose a more tech-savvy and unconventional writer. 

aoprivacy100.jpg
In any case, there's a bit in the play about AOLStalker.com, a website that allows you to search all those released records for better or for worse (here's 927's actual log, but I warn you to give it a pass, because it's a real bummer of a read). Through AOL's records, the New York Times was able to sleuth out the names of two of the company's actual human members. Creepy. What have you searched for in the last three months that you might not want the New York Times to know about?

I know I'm a couple of years late to the site--even 927 knew about Numa Numa before me--but I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

What's so interesting about these logs is that some tell horror stories, some are dramas, others read like parody. They are, as Gray's characters explain, bits of "time travel," but they're more than that. User 927 is the most prurient example, but each seeker in their turn creates a deeply affecting portrait of their individual struggles, neuroses, passions, hobbies and defects. 

Once you start AOLStalking, just try to resist assigning features to a log's creator. User 30011 has light brown skin, is pretty, young, harried, with long layered black hair, a pink tank top and cut-off jean shorts, worrying about her kids and fanning herself in the Miami heat. User 1366195 is white but tan, athletic, with short black gelled hair, wearing a white t-shirt at the wooden desk in his bedroom, trying desperately to stay focused on finishing an Abraham Lincoln term paper. AOLStalkers even rate the users' records, from "Masterpiece" on down. There's probably enough material for a comedy--or tragedy--in that fact alone.

It's a digital version of Our Town, and all those voices unwittingly and unwillingly pulled through the ether are still waiting to have their proper say onstage. It was a great idea; maybe eventually it will also make great theater.

June 12, 2008 2:05 PM | | Comments (4)
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.