Perception is a funny thing. The footage on screen is grainy, and hard to see. But, it's of a hot young girl in a white wife-beater, posing on a chair. Then again, she's handcuffed to the chair and crying. But, these clips go up every day on YouTube, and they've got a LonelyGirl15-level following, so maybe it's not real. It seems the girl is innocent, and in pain. Maybe she's not, maybe she's a masochist. A discussion on semiotics--the true meaning behind the signs that we see, i.e., is your red the same as my red--is the last thing you'd expect of Joshua Scher's dark drama, The Footage, but it's just one in a series of pleasant surprises.
Scher has an ear for language, and this helps him navigate his bumpy, multi-perspective narrative. Whether it's whimpering video clips of this so-called "death porn" footage; a real-world love story between lonely Alexa (Rachel McPhee) and JC (Michael Guagno), a reserved runaway; or even comically anachronistic machinima, in which video from "HellCraft" (I assume there's a legal issue) is edited and dubbed to make the characters talk about Jamba Juice, the characters sound real. Maya (Caroline Hurley) delivers blogs in monologue form, worrying about the implications of voyeurism that makes us implicit in a crime; her boyfriend, Chance (Jamie Effros), a filmmaker stuck doing TV, is struck by the brilliance of it, morals be damned; and the kidnapped Delilah (Elizabeth Alderfer) is a victim, but not necessarily as you expect. More surprisingly, for such a heavy theme, Scher is able to work in ROFLMAO (pronounced "roffle mao," meaning Rolling On Floor, Laughing My Ass Off) comedy by stressing the online flirting between Chance's "l33t" gamer of a roommate, Ethan (Michael Micalizzi) and Alexa's germaphobic roommate, Lauren (Blair Baker).
What's most surprising is that for a play which stresses the line between what's real and what's not, so much of the acting seems real. Even Dodge (Nicolas Flower), a friend of Chance's who is crashing for a week as he gets over a text-messaged break-up, sounds believable, even if the things that happen to him are both irrelevant and artificial. As for the rest of the cast, they all get a few moments to develop beyond their broader stereotypes--Guagno reveals a darker side, Hurley thinks outside the blog, and Baker and McPhee spend a wonderful scene getting baked together, talking about why hitting on an avatar is better than talking to a random guy at a bar. It's not just a clever moment, it's original, too.
Given all these good moments, it's an unfortunate surprise to find that the ending is more than a little contrived, although director Claudia Zelevansky finds an artistic way to handle it (as she does with Adrian Jones's budget-appropriate set). Giving The Footage such a neat ending fights the impulses of the entire show; trust Ethan, instead, who nails it when he says, of his online relationship, "I know it wasn't real real . . . But I had enough to fill in the blanks." All Scher needs is one more change in perception, just something a little more grainy at the end.