BWW Review: USER NOT FOUND Deals With Death In The Digital Age At A Brooklyn Café
The Greene Grape Annex is a winsome little café nestled in a bustling part of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. It is just east of Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM), Theater For A New Audience (Sir Trevor Nunn stopped in when he was directing a show there), MoCADA, BRIC, Spike Lee's 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks office, and is surrounded by restaurants and tree-lined streets with brownstone buildings. The Annex is a lot less hipster than the coffee shops of Williamsburg or Bushwick and has its own unique charm. The diverse and revolving cast of baristas and bartenders are part of the draw. They are friendly, quirky, fun and brimming with personality, each one with their own unique style and persona, like characters from a play. It serves the usual coffee and tea drinks as well as light food fare and a full bar, beer and wine. It is always busy and the majority of the patrons are on their laptops or devices, working away, pretty oblivious to those around them. There are even designated 'laptop-free zones' at the marble bar and the tables against the wall so those who want to read a book, enjoy their meal or actually have a conversation can do so.
I am one of those patrons on my laptop, fighting for the best seat in the house -- one of the two tables up against the wall with an outlet where you can use your computer but also gaze occasionally out at the scene to observe the chatter and clinks, soaking it in between sips of a latte or Cote du Rhone before returning to the task at hand. Many are exiled to 'laptop island' where there are powerstrips and backless stools. No one looks at each other in the eye or glances up for hours on end until the staff starts sweeping and stacking chairs. As a resident of Fort Greene, like many other regulars, I use The Annex as my communal office three or four times a week, more or less, depending on what I have to get done and if I'm in town. In fact, it was one of the prime reasons I chose this neighborhood when I moved from Manhattan. I stumbled into it by chance on a frosty day one January and the staff and space felt so warm and welcoming I felt, "This is the place for me, I could live here." This is where I write almost all of my reviews, particularly those about shows at BAM, including this one, even though the show -- User Not Found -- which was part of Next Wave 2019, did not play in any of BAM's theaters, it was performed right here at The Greene Grape Annex. And while I intended to write my review of the show I saw in the cafe at the very same cafe, my plans were thwarted because that very evening the same show was back at the cafe. This piece is so meta it hurts!
Perhaps that very fact qualifies me all the more to write about the immersive, site-specific technologically-involved theatre piece created by Terry O'Donovan and Daphna Attias, Artistic Directors of the U.K. based theatre company, Dante or Die. The duo were initially inspired by an article in The Guardian written by Carole Twigg in which she questioned what to do with her husband's digital legacy after his unexpected death. Thus User Not Found -- a piece that examines grief and loss in the modern world, where a deceased person's history (self-created and not) lives forever online and the disconnect between the computer screen identity and flesh and blood human being becomes glaring -- was conceived and the pair set to finding the right collaborators to actualize their vision. They found their matches in writer Chris Goode, composer Yaniv Fridel, 'creative technologists' Marmelo, and other theatrical and technical team members that brought a show about dealing with death in the digital age to life for attendees keen on experiencing theatre in a cafe who are encouraged to use headphones and smartphones (the ones that are provided of course, not their own -- that would be rude and distracting).
The show began not unlike most of my evenings at The Annex -- the clinking of glasses, ordering of drinks and snacks -- but because of the awareness that a show was about to begin, there was a certain formality. Even I spoke only sparsely to my companion, waiting for instructions or the show to begin. And then it did, just like that. An innocuous young man sitting at the corner of laptop island suddenly spoke, his voice filtered through the headphones we were prompted to put on. He had to wave his hand for people to know who was speaking, he was just that unassuming. The performer introduced himself simply as Terry (he is actually Terry O'Donovan -- one of the co-creators, Daphna Attias took on the role of the director). He looks so much like the throngs of young professionals who come into the cafe daily that he was rendered almost invisible, though the U.K. accent was a dead giveaway -- there are a few Brits and Europeans in the neighborhood but few and far between.
Once he becomes a person, not just another face in the crowd, Terry is immediately charming and likable (which goes to show who you might overlook whilst glued to your device and that is precisely the point). In his introduction, he points out a few people in the cafe whom he has dubbed with nomenclature that he feels suits their persona as per his perception; "I call her Margret, she looks like a Margret, right? Sitting in the corner alone, like me. He's Giancarlo," Terry said of a man with good looks and air of mystery, "and that's the retired couple who mostly come in together, sometimes separately." This brief exploration created an opening of the minds of attendees to take a look around and see who they notice (or don't) while functioning in an insular, internally-driven world within a communal space. It is from that space that the character of Terry fell apart in front of our eyes when he received some shocking news through calls and text messages expressing concern but not knowing why.
What is soon discovered is that Terry's estranged ex-boyfriend, Luca, with whom he had lived with and shared a friendship before they became lovers, had suddenly died. It is later revealed when Terry -- who has been sifting through a bombardment of support and sympathy via emails, text messages and other electronic means of communication -- is contacted by a company called Fidelis, explaining that Luca has left him in charge of his 'digital legacy.' It cannot be passed to Luca's family or any other person, his former partner is solely responsible for his online presence, all of his social media interactions and anything he has been a part of on the internet. But that seemingly permanent worldwide web existence so carefully curated by an individual who has accumulated hundreds to thousands of 'likes', comments, selfies, groups, 'friends' and profile views, as well as those things we wish would disappear but live eternally online, only to potentially come back and haunt a person years or decades later, that omnipresent, omnipotent digital identity could all be erased with one click of a button from the person their legacy has been bequeathed to.
This conundrum leads to Terry into a downward spiral of grief and moral dilemma that makes him question the online presence and persona that one builds, how it correctly or falsely reflects the person they really are versus how they appear to those who know them with the memories they have formed in their own minds. His sense of loss seems to be as much about the breakup as Luca's death, and he experiences the stages of grief all over again, again and again, as he is forced to relive the moments, songs, images and events that were recorded as significant for Luca which did not align with how Terry recalled them when they were together. Worse still is seeing pictures of someone happy without you, surrounded by people you don't know doing things you'd not envisioned them doing. Terry becomes utterly unraveled by this and ultimately decides to erase Luca's online legacy forever, rendering him a 'user not found' as if he never existed on a ubiquitous forum that some might wish to escape, despite the carefully considered personality and presence they have built.
There were elements of the Netflix series Black Mirror (particularly the episodes "Smithereens" and "Be Right Back") with the questions that arose about how much technology, our devices and life online can take over our human experience, and how grief can make a person act in strange ways that could be further exacerbated in our modern age. It also reminded me of a short story I read in a collection of various authors' reflections and imaginings about death. Sadly, I forgot what the anthology was called, the writer's name or its title, but the tale and its concept always stayed with me. When one dies they are escorted to a waiting room (not unlike Beetlejuice but less extreme and imaginative, more like a doctor's office or the DMV from my impression) where they are made to wait until their name is spoken, seen or heard by the last person for the last time. No one knows where they go after that but they can only pass on from the waiting room into the next phase once they cease to still exist on earth. This struck me deeply because human beings throughout history have fought so hard for and built their lives around the desire for immortality but this posed another view. What happens to someone very famous or infamous? They'd have to wait forever whereas a grandmother in a rural village might only have to bide her time for a few generations. The mystery on the other side makes it even more fascinating to ponder -- what happens when one's name is no longer known and they are released from the waiting room? Do they pass on peacefully and merge with the universe (as is the goal of a 'good death' in some Buddhist traditions) or do they fade away into oblivion? And with the advent of the internet, online immortality seems to be a certainty unless some company like this imagined Fidelis comes along (and it is probably only a matter of time) and offers to wipe the slate clean.
The show itself was entertaining and contained intriguing concepts and questions that could merit continued conversations on the topics addressed (possibly at a cafe over a cup of coffee or tea?) but wasn't completely flawless in execution or innovation, and was more personally reflective than profound. Through our connection to Terry's world by being plugged into his smartphone and hearing what he hears via headphones, as well as what he thinks and feels via his one-sided dialogue, we became privy to a person's private grief in a public space. But User Not Found was a bit rambling and meandering; it went on longer than necessary to tell the story and perhaps past the point of its greatest impact. The devices could be a bit distracting too, as it wasn't always clear when to watch him or watch the phone (and I always favor witnessing the action of a live human being). While some of the content was helpful to drive the narrative (seeing the images of his deceased ex-lover having fun with people Terry had never met, or a music video of the song Luca had loved that Terry was ambivalent about) or simply clever and fun (the dream sequence where Nora Jones looking more like Sheryl Crow -- this was noted aloud -- appeared with a talking snail) but the live actor was by far the most compelling and interesting aspect.
While User Not Found may have not been an earth-shattering or ground-breaking experience, it was an enjoyable evening of theatre in a less than typical setting, interestingly and creatively enacted and generally engaging. Maybe the next time I sit on my laptop, writing another review (or, as is the case at the moment, finishing this one) at The Greene Grape Annex, perhaps I will strike up a conversation with a neighbor who has not completely isolated themselves in the communal space with their headphones and devices, or at least make an effort to look up, look around and share a smile with other human beings who chose to experience their isolated activities in a communal environment, because who knows what they might be going through or engaging in on their laptops and smartphones? And if anything has been proven by User Not Found it is that human interaction is far more interesting than anything found on a digital device. That being said I am happy to have my cafe/office back.
For more information on User Not Found, past and future programming for BAM Next Wave 2019, please visit: www.bam.org