Many of us think back with fondness to the early days of the internet, circa 2000-2008. A lack of regulation marked that period, and while there were benefits to this freedom, a wide variety of violent, disturbing content was far more accessible on fledgling platforms than it is on present social-media sites. Enter Mary Lee, a content moderator in the online world of Sin Eaters, now on Theatre Exile’s digital stage.
A golden opportunity?
Mary (Bi Jean Ngo) is a new employee at fictional social-media site Between Us. As is typical of the industry, she’s signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents her from discussing her job with almost everyone, including family, friends, and even her partner Derek (David M Raine).
On the surface, it’s a golden opportunity to get her foot in the tech industry door and help the couple afford to escape their leaky, moldy apartment and violent, screaming neighbors. However, what first seems like a miracle quickly becomes a live-in horror movie as Mary swiftly finds her personal life deeply affected by the depravities she witnesses within minutes of starting the job.
While many theaters have adapted their performances to digital mediums over the past year with mixed results, Sin Eaters thrives where others languish. Told through the medium of digital lenses from webcams to phones to security systems, the show creates an inescapable digital panopticon for both actors and audience. The multiple cameras and angles allow cinematographer Jen Cleary and video editor Kelly Orenshaw to incorporate visual elements common to film and television, taking excellent advantage of the medium and bringing the themes of fractured observation and self into sharp relief.
Theatre Exile’s transition from stage to digital is not only seamless, but thoroughly enhanced thanks to the artists and crew. Director Matt Pfeiffer’s production is the first I’ve seen that feels as if putting it onstage would actually detract from the content and its meaning.
A human atrocity
Ngo and Raine, who are partners in real life, bring to the stage the now-scarce additional benefit of being able to physically interact with one another. The ease and tension of their interpersonal dynamic was nuanced and thoughtful even in its more absurd moments. Although the elements of psychological horror are a bit overplayed, what is really chilling is the way Mary’s continual exposure to the worst of humanity becomes quickly normalized in some ways, and radically changes her life in others.
Sin Eaters challenges us to rethink our one-dimensional perceptions and consider the cost and consequences of safety, and what being “safe” really means. Despite the content warnings, none of the triggering content Mary views is ever onscreen for the viewer, so audience members need not worry about having to watch real human atrocities enacted…except, of course, for the one happening to the woman in front of them.
Image description: A still from Sin Eaters. Seen as if from her computer screen, sitting in a gray office cubicle, Asian American actor Bi Jean Ngo has a worn, concerned expression and presses one hand to her mouth. A small whiteboard over her right shoulder has a list of handwritten words like “pornography,” “gore,” “racism,” “hate speech,” and “animal abuse,” with the words “Go team!” at the bottom. Over her left shoulder is a human resources policy manual for the company Between Us, attached to the wall.
What, When, Where
Sin Eaters. By Anna Moench, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Streaming through February 28, 2021 from Theatre Exile. Theatreexile.org.
Sin Eaters does not currently offer subtitles. The performance includes references to upsetting themes including violence, racism, pedophilia, rape, sexual assault, suicide, murder, and death.