Whit MacLaughlin's "Fatebook' at Live Arts Festival (1st review)

Actions and consequences in cyberspace

MacLaughlin: Shades of Wagner's 'Ring.'
MacLaughlin: Shades of Wagner's 'Ring.'

"A man's character is his fate," the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed. Twenty-five hundred years later, director Whit MacLaughlin uses the Internet to bring this idea to fruition in Fatebook: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time.

MacLaughlin told me he wanted to investigate "what actually happens in cyberspace, what do you perceive and experience, and how, at the neuronal level, does your brain process finally meeting someone you've only known in online life?" To achieve these goals, MacLaughlin and 15 young actors created online personae on Facebook, then developed and interacted with potential audience members in cyberspace to create a show that seeks to "blow open the discursive paradigm of theatre."

Indeed, when I first walked through the giant metal door into the converted warehouse that houses Fatebook, I encountered a large screen, where a real-time video of a cherub-faced young blonde (Emily Letts) looked down on me and announced, "Fatebook is an archive that holds all knowledge," a place "in which you might find your fate." Then Letts lays out the rules: Pick a character (from the 15), follow them and "pay attention to what they do, don't neglect the corners of where they take you, and look for me, because I just may be fucking with you."

And up the stairs I went, into Matt Saunders's interlocking labyrinth of stages, where in each room stood one of the characters in front of a large "Facebook-styled" banner, each waiting for illumination from Drew Billiau's potent lighting and Jorge Cousineau's ADHD-TV videos and multimedia.

15 mini-stories, intersected

Over the next 15 minutes, each character's mini-story is played out in videos projected onto a series of screens— in effect, a universe held together by the intersections of 12 lives and the three fates that push them inexorably toward their destiny. Moving from room to room— as I voyeuristically trailed along behind them— each grappled with choices that stemmed from the choices and relationships they'd already made: Should I quit law school? Can I get a gun? How can I get over my dead fiancée? And where's the next party?

About half the characters comprise the central storyline: a murder mystery that blends together themes of vengeance, love, ambition, loss. MacLaughlin fleshes out the background with the assistance of orthogonal individuals, who mirror real life by providing the compelling (if distracting) color of unrelated and inconsequential characters.

Like Macbeth's witches, the three fates— Kate Brennan, Cindy Spitko and Anne MacGillivray Wilson—appear everywhere to serve drinks, peer out from the reflection in a glass display case, and float in and out of the stories with light caresses that lead to a bloody nose, unrequited love, and a bullet's path.

A misleading hostess

Like these young men and women hemmed in on all sides by fate, once I bought in, I found myself locked into MacLaughlin's theatrical netherworld of consequence. The entire sequence of action repeats five times, enabling everyone in the audience to pick out and follow as many as five characters, the better to piece together the entire story. Letts reappears to punctuate these intervals with commentary and advice (some useless, so beware)— and like a drug-dealer, dangles little clues by which to enter a portal that offers ever more potent highs of theatrical experience.

MacLaughlin had each member of his cast create online personae through reams of status updates, videos and even songs— possibly theater's most intensive pre-production process since the first Bayreuth staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle. But he employed little of this Facebook world in the actual production. Instead, he ultimately produced another production in a series of recent Philadelphia plays purportedly about the Internet (User 927, Dark Play), but which fail to find any drama that actually occurs in cyberspace. I know I've never experienced the richness of Fatebook in cyberspace.

But who cares whether MacLaughlin achieved his goals? After the second run-through, I felt entranced and completely seduced— not so much transformed by the production as awakened to a heightened sense of theatrical reality. Fatebook became a place where Fate performs one-hand pushups against the wall of a funeral home, anticipating the next thread she'll cut short, and ensnaring her audience in a web that gave me one of the most unique and immersive theatrical productions I've ever experienced.♦

To read another review by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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