This selection of Robert Patrick short plays imagines the past and future of cyber technology.
Photo by Minji Lee
Since the 1960s, playwright Robert Patrick has been writing imaginative pieces that questioned the future and the role of technology in our lives. In Hi Fi | Wi Fi | Sci Fi, produced by CultureHub in association with Seoul Institute for the Arts, five of his short plays written decades apart come together in one forward-looking evening of experimental theater. Featuring just five performers and an ensemble of assistants to guide the action, this selection of "Predictions Past Present and Future" directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco takes the audience on a journey to discover the human connections present or absent in our cyber world.
The action begins with "Action," the tale of a playwright (Agosto Machado) typing out the story of another man (John Gutierrez) who is himself writing the story of the first author. Valois Mickens and Yeena Sung then enter the scene as their respective companions, helping and hindering the process of writing. It is a clever glimpse into the mind of a playwright who wonders who is really in control as he writes, and takes place on a gorgeous set that plunges the audience straight into that mind. However, watching actors type out the scene on typewriters feels somewhat out of place in this otherwise futuristic evening of theater.
"Camera Obscura," the next piece, observes the struggles of two lovers (Gutierrez and Sung) who are trying to speak via a video connection with a five second delay. As each grows more frustrated with their failure to understand one another, viewers begin to question if technology helps us communicate with one another or makes it more difficult. It is again an interesting premise, and the live video and audio feeds are well executed, but the one-dimensional short play does not feature much in the way of plot.
The third play, "All in the Mind," is the most successful merging of live action and technology, imagining a world in which everyone on earth suddenly becomes telepathic at the same time. The audience is surrounded on all sides by video screens on which Machado and Mickens explain their world to a newborn child, from the difficulties mankind had with this equalizing force to how they learned to overcome their fears and prejudices for one another. The piece explores dimensions of scale, as the recorded images of the actors dwarf the audience, while the "telepathic" voices mirror our world in which much of our communication with one another is not actually spoken out loud.
Live music and sound mixing contribute to the engaging and interactive atmosphere of the production, while several assistants shepherd the audience through the various performance spaces and distribute props as needed. Without clearer instructions, however, these elements of audience participation evoke more confusion than anything else, and it is unclear if such a reaction is intended. That, and the lack of seating for the majority of this 90-minute performance, gives the impression that everything in this show is choreographed and well thought out—except for the role of the audience.
"Simultaneous Transmissions," the following play, juxtaposes the optimistic perspective of "All in the Mind" with a darker, dystopian vision of how children learn to hate those who are different from themselves. Featuring Gutierrez as the child and Machado and Mickens as the parents, this piece replaces the peaceful and nurturing voices of the previous piece with incitements to violence from both the live actors and their prerecorded voices. This simple but powerful play includes beautiful movement work on the part of Gutierrez and stylized violence that is somehow more horrifying than anything more realistic could ever be.
"Anything Is Plausible," the final component of the evening, departs from anything seen up to this point by giving the audience a clear identity and given circumstances: attendees at the 2117 Super State Cultural Conference. At this conference, we are given the opportunity to watch "All in the Mind" again, but this time performed live and with Gutierrez and Sung as the actors instead. This setup is perhaps a bit cliche, but it does provide the opportunity to return to the more optimistic outlook of the earlier piece.
This complex series of performances would be impossible without impeccable acting and production values, and in that regard, Hi Fi | Wi Fi | Sci Fi is certainly a success. In an era in which so much of the experimental theater we see is devised ensemble work, this selection of scripted experimental pieces is a welcome change. And despite the frequent confusion of the audience, Robert Patrick's plays certainly leave a lasting impression.
Hi Fi | Wi Fi | Sci Fi plays at La MaMa through February 19.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.