It's an almost impossible task to theatrically represent the dangers of Internet life in a way that does not diminish either them, or the play itself. Using a tabbed, ADD-riddled narrative leaves us with nothing to connect to, as does filling that show with anonymous relationships and emotionless, overshared information. Thankfully, Waterwell's musical approach to material gives them an edge (honed through years of collaboration), in the sense that even a wild miss would be wildly entertaining. #9, their latest production, is entertaining, but the challenge they're up against is such that it isn't for long. "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us," reads Marshall McLuhan's warning for the Digital Age, and that's what's happened here: Waterwell spends the first forty minutes establishing their own world and then gets tangled in it for the last hour. (At least it sounds good.)
At first, Hanna (Hanna Cheek), is a bartender/actor who is reluctantly coming to terms with having an online presence--"Even Zelda Fitzgerald has one." But as her phone continues to call itself, she fractures into an other-self that sings in the electronic lounge known as Echoland, a device that would be cooler--as would the trick mirror that inspires it--if it actually went somewhere. In the flush of finding out that he's going to be a dad, Matt (Matt Dellapina) gives Waterwell an opportunity to showcase their range, as each new website he clicks through sings in a different style. However, his story seems to hit a broken link after he gets in touch with his 3D baby self, just as things get too fragmented for David (David Ryan Smith) after his father dies--David plays himself acting as his father and then actually as his father. The one story that follows through completely is Kevin's (Kevin Townley): after some online dating, he decides to find his lost love from fifteen years ago. It's unclear why McLuhan shows up in his bed and ends up in Echoland, but at least he rocks out while he's there.
Today, most people cope with the Internet by dealing with very small sections at a time, refusing to stray far from the safety of bookmarks, aggregates, and trusted links. Tom Ridgely is a great director, but he's too bold of an explorer in this instance. Alex Koch's video design is neat, but the text that pops up all over is unreadable, and effects like Hanna's digital shadow are occasionally lost amidst the flickering. Nick Benacerraf's built a terrific three-tiered set, but Ridgely moves so fast that he often forgets to use the upper level. Previous shows like Marco Million$ and The/King/Operetta worked so well because they kept the focus on a central plot or a central character--in #9, everything just keeps branching out. In that regard, the music benefits: the show would make a terrific revue. The final song, "Did You Mean," pitches elements from all the previous scenes at the audience--but would just as effectively rebuke the distractions of the Interweb even without context. In that light, it may be time for Waterwell to clear out their cache and run the defragger.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009