BWW Review: SONG ABOUT HIMSELF is a Moving Examination of Communication
SONG ABOUT HIMSELF is Mickle Maher's latest play which is set in a dystopian future where viruses and malware have effectively destroyed the Internet. The populace had been so obsessed with social media that this destruction has left a world of people who communicate in little more than mumbles and broken descriptions of emojis. This fascinating piece would work quite perfectly as an episode of Black Mirror in that it is a look at a technical future gone horribly awry. It also is a clever use of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, widely considered to be the first 'Poem of Chaos'. The world of Maher's play is clearly a world in chaos, and identity is a central theme of both works. SONG ABOUT HIMSELF uses extremely minimalist staging and Maher has created an original language that is part broken description of social media actions and part corruption of Walt Whitman's poetry. While familiarity with Whitman will enrich your experience, it is in no way necessary to the experience.
The play begins with what you at first believe is an audience member's phone that someone has forgotten to turn off; however, this slowly builds to a cacophony of phone rings and other electronic sounds that all suddenly ends, along with the lights, in a clear power failure of some kind. Carol (Katherine Catmull), a woman looking for human interaction appears and signs in to a mysterious social media site created by an artificial intelligence within the internet itself (now referred to as 'The Weed'), only to find that she is its only member. What soon becomes clear is the world of the play is cyberspace. Carol is online. Whenever we see her, she is logged on to a social network called YouSpake. YouSpake was created because language as we know it has been degraded by years of empty social media interaction on the internet. We learn that Carol found her voice by obsessively watching a TV program called Song About Himself, about the few remaining traces of a poet whose name is lost to history.
Carol's only interaction in the beginning is with Host/Hostess (Jason Phelps), a polite but rigid computer program who is the YouSpake interface. We, like Carol, are strangers who must learn an unfamiliar language and rules. Host/Hostess entreats Carol to not merely "Back and Forth" (converse), but to "Lengthy Post," which is clearly some form of narrative story telling. The two are joined later by Tod (Ken Webster), another soul searching for connection. It is Tod's presence which sets up a sort of bizarre love triangle. Host/Hostess's behavior grows steadily more human over time as it becomes jealous of Carol's interactions with Tod. There's a little bit of HAL9000 in Host/Hostess's algorithms.
Indeed, Maher's play is not unlike being online late at night with only the glow of a computer screen... typing away in the hopes of making a connection with another cyber-soul who is also up at a ridiculous hour. It's also a bit like a computer game as you begin parsing out Maher's jargon. The things humans do that aren't actually speech (like mumbling, coughing, trailing off) are part of the script and are said aloud. In essence, these are spoken stage directions. The effect is simultaneously weird and wonderful and takes as much getting used to as a language as Shakespeare.
Mark Pickell has done a masterful job staging this in the round. Indeed, the stage that has been inside Hyde Park for ages, is completely gone. He evokes a nice recreation of cyberspace as a place of lights and shadows devoid of actual face to face interaction. Likewise, Patrick Anthony's restrained lighting and palette set mood wonderfully in an endless cycle of what appears to be the deeply damaged internet crashing and rebooting. Lowell Bartholomee's sound design is both understated and completely supportive.
The three performances are top-notch. The cast functions as a unit, actually, with performances full of frustration, wonder and discovery. To tell too much would spoil the surprises of this experience, but know that you are in for some exceptional theatre.
SONG ABOUT HIMSELF is a moving examination of communication in the internet age. It's a look at both how we communicate and fail to communicate online. One has to ask the question if this is where we are headed thanks to the abbreviated words of text messages and emojis. Are we indeed headed to the total breakdown of communication? At the core, though, Maher is examining what it means to connect with another human being and how much we rely on technology to do so.
I have always maintained that the best theatre is that which engages you to think. SONG ABOUT HIMSELF does that in spades and is an experience well worth your time. You will have a lot to think about for days after.
SONG ABOUT HIMSELF: by Mickle Maher
Running time: Approximately 85 Minutes no intermission.
SONG ABOUT HIMSELF, produced by Capital T Theatre, plays Hyde Park Theatre (511 W. 43rd St) OCT. 27 - NOV. 19, 2016. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets $20 reserved seating, $30 VIP supporter, includes a drink, plus service fee, https://secure.buyplaytix.com/capitalt/reserve/song_about_himself_by_mickle_maher.html