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“The Nether’s” Virtual Reality Addresses Age-Old Questions in Future Worlds

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates converses with his student Glaucon on the nature of reality and representation. In order to explain the perils of fictional representation (i.e. art, theater, and any other entertainment employing false devices) he uses the metaphor of prisoners chained to the side of a cave where they are forced to watch shadowplays on the wall. The prisoners come to know no other reality other than the one they are present with. They mistake the outlines of trees for real trees, the puppet shadows as real people, the actors’ voices as the voices of the characters. Their lives are encased in falseness and they lose sight of their real circumstances.

More importantly, these prisoners, when released from the cave, will not be able to function in the society as rational, clear-minded citizens. The shock they will undergo upon realizing that the cave shadows were just images will be traumatic, and many of them will reject the real world and retreat back to the cave in anger and pain.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is a foundational text for the critique of art. Just look at the way every new art form has been treated upon its arrival. Eighteenth century society condemned the novel as sensationalized and lewd, fearing that its immersive emotional intensity would corrupt readers. They thought that female readers in particular (of course) would imitate literary heroines’ sexual or unwomanly exploits. Film with graphic violence is still treated with similar criticism. And video games have undergone the same treatment for the past two decades. Ask anyone why they love their favorite show, movie, or book, and more often than not, they’ll reply with something along the lines of “I love escaping to the world of the stage/book/film.”

Were Plato’s warnings correct? Have we substituted real perceptions for fantasies and fiction? Are we too weak and susceptible to know the difference? And if so, is that such a bad thing? What’s wrong with engaging in a false reality when it harms no one?

The Nether projects this dilemma about two generations into the future, where nearly every aspect of daily life has moved into an expansive internet territory. Future internet, or the nether, also has motor-sensory capability so that not only can you conduct your daily life virtually, but also see, hear, touch, taste, and feel the virtual world through a self-designed avatar (the sensory levels seem to be adjustable according to the participator’s preference). People can even relocate their whole lives onto the nether and become ‘shades.’ There are life support systems specifically designed to enable the body through a lifetime in the nether.

Ben Rosenfield, Sophia Anne Caruso and Merritt Wever. Photo by Jenny Anderson

Our Plato is this story is a young detective named Morris (Merritt Weaver) who works in law enforcement dealing with cyber crimes. Like Plato, Morris is concerned with keeping the order of society and the nether is precisely the realm over which the law has no control. She believes that participators the virtual world, where illegality and violence face little to no consequences, will carry over their behaviors into the real world. Any law-abiding citizen can corrupt their worldview with the no-limits mentality of the nether. All people need in order to be criminals is the idea of criminality. Once someone is exposed to the nether’s world of pornography, game violence, and criminality, the idea of it can only grow in the person’s mind until it evolves into action.

Morris is investigating a virtual world called The Hideaway, a fantastical Victorian countryside landscape that functions as an internet brothel. Patrons of the world enter it using their avatars and are free to do nearly whatever they please (have sex with, molest, violently murder, etc.) to a beautiful, adolescent girl. The girl is only an avatar and can be reborn after every killing. When questioned, The Hideaway’s creator, Mr. Sims (Frank Wood) insists that this virtual world does not encourage pedophilia. Rather, it contains it on the nether. It channels his client’s sexual impulses into a safe haven that harms no one. Would Morris rather these pedophile energies be repressed by his clients, only to explode in an uncontrollable act leased upon children in the real world? Besides, why police an consensual virtual experience?

Jennifer Haley’s tight script accomplishes what few scripts can; it manages to be thrilling and thematically rich, provoking excitement during the show and discussion after.  Each scene momentously builds upon its predecessor. I can’t think of one scene I would have shortened, let alone cut. Plato might have liked the fact that director Anne Kauffman is constantly making us aware of our spectatorship, culminating with a particularly brilliant final scene in which the real consequences of Sims’ fantasy are confronted. The Nether intuitively touches upon the foundational questions of art: How much are we complicit in the lies art gives? Do representation’s lies harm or help society? Now more than ever, as our lives are relocated more and more into the abstract, intangible world of the internet, where do we turn for reality?

The Nether runs at the Lucille Lortel Theater through March 22nd. Tickets here.

“The Learned Ladies” @ Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex

Moliere’s play The Learned Ladies a has a decidedly tongue-in-cheek title with regard to its female characters, who study obsessively but learn very little. A new production by The New Ateh Theater Group and Cake Productions takes that conceit one step further, with an all-female cast.

But first, the plot: Chrysale may be the man of the house, but it is his wife Philaminte who wields power over the household. She, along with bookish daughter Armande and eccentric sister-in-law Belise, obsessively follow various academic pursuits. They even have a live-in poet, Trissotin, who charms the women with his less-than-stellar verses. Philaminte is so charmed by Trissotin that she betroths him to her daughter Henriette. The catch? She is already engaged to her love Clitandre, a match that her father had already approved. Requisite misunderstandings follow before good triumphs, evil flounders, and the learned ladies receive a few life lessons of their own.

All-female productions of classic works are nothing new, but ATG/Cake’s production of Learned Ladies is a shining example of how it should be done. All actresses play their characters faithfully, with no caricatures present in their male—or female—counterparts. (Though to be fair, that mistake is something I usually see when men play female roles, usually for laughs. But that is another post for another day.) After the novelty of false mustaches and pinned-back hair wears off, the production quickly immerses the audience into Moliere’s world of parody, witty insight, and broad comedy. The cast delivers on the laughs, with effortless comedic timing (aided by Paul Urcioli’s precise direction) and fully-acted performances. As a result, these Learned Ladies definitely earn top marks.

Contemporary Shakespeare: “OT” and “The HAMLET Project”

William Shakespeare may have lived and died centuries ago, but artists continue to find new ways to present his work to contemporary audiences. Here are two projects that work to reinvent the Bard’s classics:

“OT”

British spoken word artist Charlie Dupré released a music video retelling of Othello earlier this month. The piece is part of his ongoing project, “The Stories of Shakey P,” a collection of Shakespeare plays retold as rap songs. “OT” does a good job of breaking down Othello in a succinct, entertaining way, while also making it specific to contemporary British youth. The song also has a chorus reminiscent of Dido’s verses in “Stan”—sad, evocative, and crazy catchy.

hamletprojectnewyork
To drink, or not to drink: That’s not a question.

THE HAMLET PROJECT

The appropriately named Three Day Hangover is making Shakespeare a part of New York City nightlife with its highly energized bar-themed productions of the Bard’s plays. The HAMLET Project, which had a summer run at Harley’s Smokeshack, advertises itself as a “Shakespeare drinking theatrical event.” And boy, does it deliver. Cast members, armed with noisemakers, alert the audience to take shots throughout the show. (One cue guaranteed to kill your sobriety is to take a drink whenever a character says the word “king.”) The cast isn’t spared, either. Whenever a character dies, a bonus game called “Heaven or Hell” ensues, where the audience votes whether a deceased character goes to heaven (a shot of whiskey) or hell (a cup of boxed wine). At the performance I attended, only the actor playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visited heaven’s gates.

Hamlet and company might drop more f-bombs than Shakespeare ever intended, and die-hard Shakespeare purists may not be pleased with Three Day Hangover’s liberal treatment of the text. Though it was on the irreverent side, many scenes still kept their dramatic gravity. The ghost scenes, in particular, were some of the best I’ve ever seen in a production of Hamlet (the ghost taking on the form of a homeless man notwithstanding).

Their next show, a treatment on Romeo and Juliet titled The R+J Experience: Star-Cross’d Death Match, premieres tonight at Harley’s Smokeshack—and I will definitely be attending. For more information, check out Three Day Hangover’s website.

“Rubber Ducks and Sunsets” @ Gene Frankel Theatre

A story about twenty-somethings in Brooklyn discovering the meaning of life would usually have me running for the hills.

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Or just have me changing the channel.

But there is something intriguing about Ground UP Productions’ new play Rubber Ducks and Sunsets, now playing at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Written by Catya McMullen, Rubber Ducks takes place in the weeks after the death of Al, a photographer who is survived by his sister Amy (Christine Mottram), his boyfriend Walter (JD Taylor), his assistant Petey (Zac Moon), and his friends Casey (Anna Stromberg) and Eli (Josh Evans). Each character has their own way of dealing with Al’s death. Eli begins training for the “Iron Bro,” a competition that combines “athleticism, recreational drug use and stamina.” Amy, who has been estranged from Al for years, tries to build relationships with Walter and his friends. (Warning: results will vary.) Petey is curating some of Al’s possessions for a Vanity Fair spread, and despite her dislike for Petey, Casey decides to help. Meanwhile, Walter plays his guitar alone in the bathroom, where Al died.

JD Taylor as Walter in Rubber Ducks and Sunsets.
Walter (JD Taylor) during one of his bathroom sets.

The action takes place in Al and Walter’s Brooklyn apartment. The characters mention how “awesome” the apartment looks, and they aren’t lying. Designed by Travis McHale, Rubber Ducks’ set captures the magic of a realistic Broadway set in a much smaller venue. When you look at the set, it feels as if you are looking into the interior of a Brooklyn photographer’s apartment, ironic animal trophy head and all. Speaking of New York real estate, it was refreshing to see that Al had the apartment because he was rich enough to afford it, and not through some rent-controlled-elderly-cousin-luck that’s been trotted about in way too may New York-based narratives.

Best friends forever. (L-R): Josh Evans as Eli, JD Taylor as Walter (sitting) and Anna Stromberg as Casey.
Best friends forever. (L-R): Josh Evans as Eli, JD Taylor as Walter (sitting) and Anna Stromberg as Casey.

Playwright Catya McMullen is one to watch. Her dialogue is fresh and rings true, and it’s sweet to see Casey and Walter have their imaginative bouts of one-upmanship: “Would you still be my friend if I talked to pigeons? / If I was turned on by cacti? / If I exfoliated with falafel? / If I had a lucky merkin?” The actors bring a earnest vibrancy to their performances, from Josh Evans’ goofy Eli to Anna Stromberg’s ballsy but vulnerable Casey to JD Taylor’s troubled Walter. If the cast was sometimes a little too fast with their dialogue, it can be attributed to their enthusiasm for the text (and opening night excitement). And Scott Klopfenstein’s original music is beautifully complex, underscoring the grief felt by Walter and his friends.

The play’s ending felt a bit abrupt. Amy and Petey’s stories get short shrift (what happened to the Vanity Fair piece?), while Eli, Walter, and Casey reaffirm their bonds of friendship. But the plot isn’t necessarily the focus of Rubber Ducks and Sunsets. The characters are, as they forge new identities, support each other, and wear their hearts (unironically) on their sleeves.

4 Reasons Why Water by the Spoonful is Awesome

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Last night Water by the Spoonful had its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theatre.  Here are some reasons why it’s awesome:

1. It is the first Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a Latina playwright.

And boy does Quiara Alegría Hudes represent. Water by the Spoonful follows ex-Marine Elliot and his return home to Philadelphia. While Elliot’s postwar demons are not new, the perspective of a Latino veteran is. The same could be said for Elliot’s cousin Yaz, who is reevaluating her life after her divorce. Her relationship with her husband was strained in part because it was an interracial one. Odessa, Elliot’s biological mother, has a particularly poignant arc. While her addiction to cocaine would usually be the end of the story, in Spoonful it’s only the beginning as  Odessa uses her experiences to moderate a forum about substance abuse. Add in a group of  diverse well-rounded supporting characters and you have Water by the Spoonful.

2. Internet conversations can still be dramatic ones.

At first, I couldn’t believe that entire scenes were taking place in Odessa’s internet chat room. But this production of Spoonful deftly handled these scenes, in part by displaying the avatars and usernames of the characters on stage. And with so much of our communication now taking place online, it was a bold and timely move to include the online interactions of the characters.

3. Location, location, location.

I mentioned this in my Stephen Adly Guirgis post, but I love plays that take us somewhere beyond the living room. Spoonful travels to a Subway in Philly, a train station in Japan, a rainforest in Puerto Rico, and more. Seeing all of these places on stage was not only exciting but also allowed characters to go on new and unexpected journeys. I especially liked Madeleine’s quest to find herself in Japan, and Elliot and Yaz’s spreading their aunt’s ashes in El Yunque.

4. So. Much. Heart.

A lot of today’s theatre has to do with aloof-ness and disassociation, whether it be through emotion-less line readings or snarky witticisms. But Water by the Spoonful‘s characters aren’t afraid to care. Yaz is passionate about teaching Coltrane to her students and take care of Elliot, Odessa wants the best for all of her forum members, and Madeleine wants to connect to Clayton in a tangible way. Hudes’ honest writing and the ensemble’s sincere performances create a memorable, heartfelt night of theatre.

6 Reasons Why I Love Stephen Adly Guirgis

Over the hurricane break, I caught up on my reading. And as the oncoming storm threatened to take over the city, I officially finished the entirety of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ published plays.

He is beyond awesome. Here’s why:

1) He is a master of the English language. His prose is exciting, raw, and poetic. His dialogue is a perfect blend of the beautiful and obscene. Want to see it in action? Read Boochie’s monologue in Den of Thieves.

2) The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

3) Oh, you wanted me to elaborate? Okay, this play is one of my favorites. Ever. Last Days imagines that Judas’ case of betrayal is finally put to trial, with Sigmund Freud, Mother Teresa, and many other witnesses–biblical and otherwise–testifying and appearing in flashbacks. Last Days is the ultimate dramatization of justice. Judas’ final scene with a certain savior is so poignant it hurts. Andrew Lloyd Webber, read ’em and weep.

4) Guirgis reinvigorates life into the contemporary American play. You won’t find too many overwrought scenes taking place in living rooms in his plays. Guirgis places his characters in motels, funeral homes, basements, bars, correctional facilities, hospitals, and the afterlife (and there are a few living rooms, too). He creates fully realized worlds and isn’t afraid to populate his plays with larger casts of characters. Guirgis’ delicate balance of tragicomedy makes him able to tell a story with brilliant humor and heartbreaking depth. When you’re in a Guirgis play, there is never a dull moment.

5) His New York is for the natives, a refreshing take from all the white twenty-something newcomer to the city narratives. From the displaced-by-Disney Times Square denizens of In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings to the grieving, fractured Harlem community in Our Lady of 121st Street to the Bronx hospital workers in The Little Flower of East Orange, Guirgis’ diverse cast of characters occupy a very real, very special part of New York City.

6) Speaking of diverse, Guirgis is not afraid of protecting the integrity of his plays–even when it’s controversial. When a certain theatre not far from New York City cast young white twenty-somethings to play Puerto Rican thirty-somethings in a seemingly case of cronyism in one of Guirgis’ plays, Guirgis responded on his Facebook page with “headshaking anger.” In an author’s note to the Dramatists Play Service edition of The Motherf@*ker With The Hat, Guirgis wrote,

“This play and all my plays have the best chance to come to life fully when they are cast as MULTI-ETHNICALLY as possible… please strive to cast the play overall in a manner that reflects the beautiful melting pot that is New York City and the setting of this play. And all that being said, the play is now yours, and these characters authentically belong to whoever has the heart and emotional generosity to claim them.”

Guirgis not only sheds light on a very troubling aspect of contemporary theatre, but offers hope for the future. And it’s f@*king amazing.

Our Arts Picks for the Summer

Kate’s picks:

Alan Cumming’s One-Man Macbeth

It was only a matter of time before this Scottish actor had to tackle this piece. And with his guests stints in Sleep No More, he’s had plenty of practice. Running July 5-14 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Into the Woods at the Delacorte

The Public Theater is pulling no punches with its 50th Anniversary season at the Delacorte Theater. This Woods features film stars and theatre greats including Amy Adams, Donna Murphy, and Dennis O’Hare. But I’m most looking forward to Ivan Hernandez’s turn as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. Yum. Previews begin July 23.

Sweet Charity in Harlem

A classic musical gets a new twist, as the New Haarlem Arts Theatre reinvisons Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity as a Latina narrative. Previews begin July 26.

Sara’s Picks:

This year’s TONY Award winning plays almost make up for an unexciting year in musical theatre, and also showed that comedy can be just as revolutionary an experience as drama. There’s the giddily energetic Peter and the Starcatcher which will leave you feeling like a kid again. Though the show’s hilarious scene-stealer, Christian Borle, is leaving the show June 30, it will be interesting to see how his replacement, Matthew Saldivar, dons the ‘stache. Another show to keep on your radar is One Man, Two Guvnors, which will be the funniest thing you’ve seen in ages, I promise. And lastly, this year’s winner for Best New Play, Clybourne Park, is a bit slow getting started, but once matters switching from living room drama to racially charged discourse, it’s edge-of-your-seat explosive and riotously funny. Cheap morning rush tickets are available for all three shows.

The statement that Too Much Light Makes the Baby Blind is not new to Off Broadway this year is only half-correct, because, in fact, it’s new every week! TMLMBB tries to perform all 30 plays (written by the cast) in 60 minutes in a race against the clock with audience members choosing the order in which they are performed. The plays range from humorous to poignant and the downright absurd. Then, after every performance a die is rolled and the sum equals the numbers of plays that will be changed for the following week. Make it an ongoing favorite!

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