BWW Review: Swipe Right--ELECTRONIC CITY by New Stage Theatre Company is a Match
In a tale as old as FaceTime, Electronic City pulses with potential as a dynamic dystopian mash-up where LED, KLM, EDM and "news" of J-Lo's CVS H20 all vie for our short attention spans. Art imitates and pixelates life, and a co-dependency on little screens leads to big problems for Joy (Jeanne Lauren Smith) and Tom (Brandon Olson), a disconnected but determined couple whose relationship status can best be described as "buffering."
The exposed red and black pipes creating a dark web across the low ceiling of the New Stage Performance Space are an apt environmental parallel for the narrative that's spun from Falk Richter's timely and tech-saturated script, translated by Marlene J. Norst. As the house lights fade but not entirely to black, we see that the the world is flat. Light glows from two sources: parallel airport "landing strips" leading from the audience toward upstage, and our cell phones just before they dim.
As Director Ildiko Nemeth challenges our notions of space (measured in gigabytes) and (screen) time hungry for our eyes, she delivers a frenetic e-story across a backdrop of globalization. As walls of tweets, texts, Instagram posts and WhatsApp status updates divide rather than connect us, we are no longer consumers of technology; technology consumes us. Hao Bai (Projection Designer) and her creative team personify the medium is the message, and that message can be maddening.
Joy tells Tom, "Tuesday week I'll be in Amsterdam for seven hours at Terminal 4 right beside Gate 65, I've looked it up and you'll arrive that evening from Madrid and fly on to Toronto, if you could perhaps fly via Amsterdam rather than Brussels and just take a connecting flight a bit later, then I could arrange my shift so that I could take my break exactly between 11:00pm and 11:30 pm and then we could get together in the KLM lounge and finally talk 'live' with each other again, I'd really just like to lay my head on your shoulder again even for a moment."
Good luck with that. Tightly-wound Tom is sleepless in Seattle, manic in Melbourne, and torqued in Taipei. He slowly spins out of control, desperately trying to process the processes that fuel his fugue: (Bjorn Bolinder) "...the staging of world politics: the production of pictures, marketing and the war, all uncontrollable processes together produce an uncontrollable system, which, in the final analysis, can no longer be represented by a picture or a story since it is itself picture and absence of narrative, if you see what I mean."
Tom: "Yes, indeed I understand that, I understand that perfectly."
We'd like to believe him, but how is that even possible when he faces this semantic saturation: "Connect collect delay, flexible workforce, flexibilise, re-engineer, reconstruct, re-educate, reinforce reduce re-measure, reassure redirect reconfigure, downsize download, outsource out-task, downed by downers, upped by uppers."
Desperate to join him is J-O-Y, whose own identity is so fractured that it's divided among three separate name tags. She, like Tom, is simultaneously tethered to and terrorized by technology. When flummoxed by a malfunctioning digital scanner, she asks in a panic, "How do you do that manually?"
Maybe with a little help from their frenemies. Augmenting Tom and Joy's surreality is an eclectic ensemble of androgynous citizens who morph from a chatty G(r)eek chorus into formations: marionettes, pedestrians, a news crew and gym members. Their level of freneticism makes Kander and Ebb's "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" taste downright decaffeinated. Clad in all black, the group shape shifts in choreographed chaos, each of them bringing their own distinct flair for roles-beyond robotic. Tatyana Kot glides effortlessly as a Roomba-llerina.
If there's a snake in this garden of gadgetry, it's the enigmatic, Dali-mustached Chris Tanner who pops up frequently with social commentary and deconstructive criticism. When Joy wanly attempts to make sense of her wavering status as "A sea of numbers under a hurricane sky," Chris rejects it: "Yes, Joy, lovely, but could we have it a little more factual perhaps? After all we do want a few facts too, not just pretty pictures, don't we? We're the ones responsible for the metaphors. You just deliver the material and we'll make something out of it, OK? Thanks all the same, Joy, but believe me, we're really better at it." He's so sinister, we believe him.
Joy and Tom stand at a crossroads facing an ultimatum: manipulate technology or be manipulated BY technology. On one level, Electronic City may seem like a gamified Metropolis for millennials; lyrics quoted from The Eurythmics seem almost nostalgic. But anyone who has lost their phone, forgotten their PIN or been foiled by an Ikea assemblage project will identify with the feeling that sometimes, even with geolocation, we're all still lost.