A lucid illusion of presence; the concept of existence in cyberspace where there is no reality except for the one created by the users online. This is not such a foreign concept in the modern society of 2013, but backtrack 20 years ago to 1993 when the internet was a bold and edgy new technology that linked people globally in a way that had never previously been achievable. And settle yourself into the notion of a perfect utopia; a community of strangers all interacting with one another, masked by this internet. Until something goes wrong; a crime— a cyber crime, is committed and the idea of this perfect existence is shattered by a reality that was never meant to exist. A deep topically relevant exploration of this cyber drama comes to light as The Acme Corporation presents If You Can Get To Buffalo: An Exploration of a Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell, a new work by Trish Harnetiaux.
Initially the play seems esoterically focused and is almost unreachable because the risqué subject matter is nearly commonplace in today’s cyber chat rooms. That modern audiences have become desensitized in a sense to the point where this almost seems like a page from a history book – the play gives you pause to stop and think. Upon closer examination, it rattled my mind, allowing me to realize that the internet – and consequently all the things that can happen behind its veil – are now old enough to be history, and we as a technologically progressive society have just gotten comfortable enough in what we know and experience to be shaken up by a production that explores this sort of subject matter.
Harnetiaux’s work explores those interpersonal relationships that are so easily developed online in such a fashion that blurs the lines between cyber-existence and reality. Working closely with Director Eric Nightengale, the pair achieve a production that focuses on the cyber community of LambdaMOO, an actual online multi-user chat experience that existed circa 1993. Nightengale gives us Harnetiaux’s vision in such a manner as to almost include us in the internal workings of this experience while keeping us on the edge of its reality at the same time; a unique way to experience theatre that deals with the blending and bending lines of what is real and what is virtual reality.
Set Designer Mark Mordhorst gives us a length of benches and tables, reminiscent of a cyber café, so that when the characters are seated at their keyboards and interacting with one another virtually they are always facing directly forward, never making eye contact. This enhances the severity of these intimate relationships that are so quickly developed online; how such an in-depth conversation can unfold between two people that never make eye contact or touch, they’re vocally and conversationally connected in a deep level but are worlds apart despite being right next to one another.
Director Eric Nightengale blocks the piece in such a way that highlights the central themes of the production. When the three men on the Charlie Rose show are seated at the round table discussing the ideology of cyber relationships they slowly begin to circle the table in their chairs, mimicking the circuitous nature of their debate. Nightengale keeps other characters, like the omnipresent ever watchful Mr. Bungle, elevated and away from the main slew of people in the chat room, as if he were looking down on them, observing. It’s Nightengale’s unique approach that augments the surreal feelings of this performance.
While the piece reads as an ensemble piece, each character has a moment in which they shine, defining for the audience the experiences that matter in a social cyber space community. Legba (Katelin McMullin) exists as that annoying nerd that never shuts up in the chat room, constantly going off on some stupid tangent that no one actually cares about. McMullin plays a series of other parts throughout the performance, her most notable being the girl ‘Grendelfish’ who is really a man posing as a woman. The dual voiceover as the man’s voice starts asking all the uncomfortable questions makes the audience particularly uneasy.
Charlie Rose (Mike Smith) is the skeptical talk show host, the man who is certain the internet will never catch on. In a sense, Smith’s character is almost symbolic of a generation resistant to change, constantly repeating phrases in disbelief to further augment their preposterous nature, things that seem common place to the modern audience. Smith is an austere presence in the space when addressing both the other two males on his show and when addressing the audience as a whole.
Stephen Nunns, taking up the role of the New Yorker Guy and a few online personas, showcases how misleading the online world can be – particularly when he poses as ‘Bambi’ a young girl who finds herself in a most compromising situation.
While the play in places may be confusing – there is always Julian (Jesse Marciniak) to keep the audience on track. Initially serving as the narrator, we eventually realize that he is not only the observer but the catalyst for the events that he discusses. As a narrator, Marciniak has a calm and collected tone, emoting little to nothing with his words. But as an active player, who goes by the alias Dr. Bombay, he becomes more congenial and interactive, particularly with Starsinger (Maddie Hicks).
Hicks is the epitome of every nervous girl who has ever been in an internet chat room or online community for the first time and is a little uncertain of how she got there or what she’s really doing there. That false sense of confidence which tangles deeply with her own insecurities is ever present in her voice and even in her slightly rigid physicality. It isn’t until that penultimate moment with Marciniak that she lets loose; her singing a haunting tune while Marciniak reads the results of the cyber rape, their voices dueling for the audience’s attention; the most fierce and stunning moment of the production.
I must be careful not to skip over Mr. Bungle (Daniel Douek). The most exciting, or perhaps just the most excitable character in the bunch. Douek embodies a creepy yet tragic existence. A predator with no real knowledge that he is the predator; dangerous curiosity blinded by his naiveté. His character lives life vicariously always wanting to be but never actually being, simply assuming the identities of others because he has none of his own. The way Douek grounds himself into the bone-tingling reality of this almost grotesque character is truly frightening; with his nasally voice that lilts with hints of bittersweetness and his robotic gestures that keep him from ever truly actualizing as a human being; he’s the most fascinating and horrifying character to observe throughout the production.
Even if it is hard to follow at times because of all the room teleporting and scene jumping, If You Can Get To Buffalo: An Exploration of A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell is worth a look, a new take on something old that we may have forgotten. And perhaps at the end you’ll be able to look back on it and laugh.
Running Time: Approximately 65 minutes, with no intermission.
If You Can Get To Buffalo: An Exploration of A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell plays through May 25, 2013 at The Acme Corporation at St. Marks Lutheran Church — 1900 Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.