nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 30, 2005
When you're talking to a real person, and then a virtual person calls you on your cell phone, who gets your attention? When you're attending live theatre, and you can watch an actor performing "live" at his/her computer keyboard, or the same actor rendered "virtual" via video on a big screen, which will you focus on?
These questions—which are actually variations of the same, very important, very timely question—are at the heart of what Super Vision is about. A collaboration of the Builders Association, a performance company that likes to explore how to use technology to extend the boundaries of theatre, and dbox, a studio of artists, "interactive designers, and visual thinkers," the show is a living laboratory of cutting-edge multimedia. Actors perform with prerecorded video in digital environments of a kind that we used to call "virtual reality," and they perform in real time with other actors via electronic connections and interfaces so that an audience member can choose from more than one viewing plane, in any one of which one character or another will be "live" while the other will be "virtual" (on screen). The juxtapositions and subsequent decisions that they prompt constitute a good deal of what's intriguing about Super Vision. The design of the digital environments is dazzling and the most exciting and innovative element: live video feeds and recorded video segments are seamlessly blended with each other in transparent layers between us and the actors and between the actors and the rear stage wall, placing the performers (and us, because we are likeliest to subconsciously identify with the live human beings) inside the virtual world: it really is like being inside a video game. Theatre designers should all take note: this methodology is very cool and very effective. And I never was conscious of the "smoke and mirrors," by which I mean that even though I could see actors operating the computers on the stage in front of me, I never questioned the authenticity of the created "worlds" where Super Vision takes place.
The folks behind this technology are James Gibbs, Matthew Bannister, and Charles d'Autremont, who collectively as dbox provided "virtual design" for the show. Let's keep our eyes on them. The show's other creators—director Marianne Weems and sound designer Dan Dobson—are figuring out neat and fascinating things about how human actors and digital elements can collaborate to tell compelling stories in the theatre, and, more bracingly, what audiences can understand about an entity, live or digital, in real-time performance. We'll keep our eyes on these folks as well.
Now, I haven't yet told you what happens in Super Vision; I will now. There are three stories, linked by the high-tech way they're told and also by their high-tech subject matter, but nevertheless very distinct thematically. The first is about a man who creates a virtual identity for his young son, getting him credit cards and brokerage accounts and the like and, eventually and tragically, overextending until he drives the child into financial ruin. This piece plays like a cautionary tale and seems to me to be just as much about obsession and disconnection as it is about the perils of identity theft.
The second piece is a string of vignettes in which the same man—a Ugandan citizen with Indian parents who is in the electronics business and travels a lot in the U.S.—is interviewed by a succession of border agents at American airports. The presentation layer, so to speak, is enormously effective: the same actor (Joseph Silovsky) dons different accents, attitudes, and facial hair to embody the customs agents; we see him on stage working at a laptop but we mostly experience him larger than life on a screen towering over the hapless traveler—from the traveler's P.O.V. Meanwhile, we also see the traveler's real-time reactions to the accelerating indignities heaped upon him (for the agents, thanks to the ability of data bases to link up and cross-reference with one another in our ever-shrinking, ever-less-private world, seem to know more and more about him—stuff, eventually, that he doesn't even know himself). And, we also see digital representations of all of those ubiquitous data base connections. It's heady stuff, though it's ultimately overused here; by the time our traveler makes his final stops near the end of the show, all of the points have been made and the segments just feel repetitious. I wasn't ultimately convinced that a specific point had been made by the text of this part of the play, but the style of the thing is just dazzling.
The third, and best, tale deals with a young American woman in New York and her grandmother in Sri Lanka. They communicate over the Internet; the granddaughter has, apparently, outfitted Grandma with a state-of-the-art computer, webcam, microphone, and necessary software so that they can video conference with one another seamlessly. At first, the girl is trying to catalogue old photos and other memorabilia that was her grandmother's, and so she shows her scanned images which the old lady identifies as best she can. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the grandmother's memory is deteriorating, which makes the recorded memories all the more special and miraculous. This piece juxtaposes the old-fashioned kind of communication (two people having a conversation in real-time, but never successfully here because the granddaughter is constantly distracted by her cell phone and other stuff on her computers) with the potent new-fashioned kind (in cyberspace, in virtual time, where voices and images that were once ephemeral can be digitized and made seemingly permanent). Profound stuff. Moe Angelos is terrifically affecting as the grandmother; Tanya Selvaratnam turns in a good performance as the granddaughter.
Though the content layer of Super Vision is ultimately only fitfully effective (text is by Constance De Jong); the form and design of the thing are knockouts Explorations like this are rare and thrilling. Audiences and artists in search of where theatre art can go in the near future will want to experience this show, where indeed some of that future is happening right now.