Here Is Somewhere Else
Futuristic Play Remembers a Past Where the Future Was Still Up For Grabs
Don Elwell's fascinating Cyberpunk Opera takes place in 2026, but it also takes you back to the futurism of William Gibson, back to the era when the budding world of virtual reality was still being pioneered and shaken up by superprogrammers and neuromancers. Opera's characters still have the adornments of old Gibson and other sci-fi writers of the mid-1980s, but what turns Elwell's play into something more than retro-sci-fi is the characters themselves and the stage they use.
Opera also places a dramatic focus on an era of innovation that hasn't lost its grasp on the imagination. The arts world hasn't forgotten or ignored high-tech--there are plenty of works in which characters flounder in their high-tech info matrixes--but writers usually look at technology as a done deal. Elwell's play--written a decade ago, and now being produced by the young Grindlebone Theatre group at the Hamilton Arts Collective--focuses on the energy of that shift itself. It's difficult to dramatize that moment, but with his keen eye for character, and his engaged but displaced language, Elwell turns the dance of humans in cyberspace into a funny, affecting play.
The central figure is John Delacroix (Paul Meyd), the sort of heroic figure you might find in cyberfiction: He's in his early 20s, amped up on his gift for developing code, and driven by a Nietzschean sense of ambition. Meyd plays him in all his intensity--complete with an unforgettable freakout while creating the code for a multi-user simulated environment while taking LSD, ginkgo, hydergine sublingual, and lots of caffeine. Having mastered one matrix, Delacroix finds himself being eliminated by another--the corporate one--as he gets laid off after a buyout. Then he finds himself in a trailer park on the side of a river in California, trying to rebuild his life. That's where he meets up with Justine (Meghan Brianna), a 17-year-old who has been sent to a punishment camp outside Provo, Utah, after her dad catches her feeling up another girl online.
That doesn't quite count as a plot summary, but as Elwell reminds us, it's hard to tie the plot down when it's difficult to tell whether the characters actually exist or not. Heather (Melissa Willen) is an avatar, a virtual human created by a young compużer whiz who, while dying of HIV III--remember, this is 20 years hence--re-created herself digitally as a blond schoolgirl. Crazy Billy (Aaron Donato) is a wired-up cyberfreak who is trying to develop a relationship with the avatar, three years after the original has died. Elwell doesn't try to break the ice or solve the mystery, but you're left sensing that, even in code, something from the original has been retained. The characters and the audience have to figure out exactly what that is. In another funny interlude, Heather gets into a sort of catfight with DCX (Crystal Baldwin), the fairy-godmother master program (developed by Delacroix) that runs the computer itself. And their question is the one that torments all the characters--which came first, the code or the human who created it?
Elwell's approach to this question is comic, but moments of actual contact between characters are awkwardly touching. When Delacroix and Justine discover one another in person, they make out in VR. Sgt. Gonzales (Micheal D. Harpster) wanders around the play's periphery as a real-time cop whose home city, Los Angeles, has disintegrated into privatization. His monologues on a lifetime spent on the police force never touch the other characters--who all exist in cyberspace on some level--but it feels appropriate that the good cop is desperately trying to find a way to work himself into the story.
The energy of characters desperately trying to shape their own identities is what drives Cyberpunk Opera. That sense is at the play's core, and there's nothing virtual about it. The five actors tap into that dynamic fluidly, and, as one of the characters claims, it really does metastasize into a dance that may not leave you with closure but which can leave you wondering about what, as humans, we have wrought.
This polished production--with a fascinating score by James Henrique--feels almost born for the Hamilton Arts Collective venue. Instead of leaving these cyberspace characters staring down from the stage, Elwell embraces the space's living-room atmosphere. His characters sit on some of the same sofas the audience members sit on--and that may be a hint. In the years since Cyberpunk Opera was written, the future may be closer to us than we think. And if we don't take it to the stage now, as we're all being slowly immersed in our own MySpaces, we may lose an opportunity.
If Elwell's finely crafted play is any indication of what is to come, Grindlebone is an exciting addition to Baltimore's theater community. Take the drive up Harford Road, sit back, crack open a Natty Boh, and tune in.
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