Electronic City begins with big questions, spoken by an ensemble dressed all in black: Where am I, who am I, and what is the series of numbers I need to open this briefcase? Existential quandary in the smartphone era doesn’t sound all that different from the Greek chorus-style playwriting of the 1960’s avant garde theatre, which may be why the cast is wearing androgynous mop tops and heavy-as-punk eyeliner.
Fans of Christopher Guest will be delighted to find the New York City Off-Broadway Experience still includes gesture-based dance sequences and sincere yelling. The industrially choreographed ensemble marches through mesmerizing projections to introduce the audience to Tom. Tom is perpetually confused by the endlessly similar cooperate environments he must frequent, to the point that he cannot be sure if he is in Tokyo, Sydney, Seattle or New York. “A man who only sings when he has to reassure himself,” Tom has trouble recognizing his reflection and cries out for someone, anyone. In the oppressive quiet he discovers a picture of a woman in his pocket, at some airport lounge in some city. Her name is Joy. Suddenly a director calls “CUT!” and asks Tom to stage the last portion of his breakdown again. The chorus narrates a sudden transition to the film set of a plane crash, complete with a live director’s commentary. This reads as an oblique reference to the events of September 11th, drawing a connection to big budget Hollywood’s production of violence, or more generally the production of war. They then cut to Joy as she begins her first day of work in some city at “The fast food outlet of the upper classes.” Joy details her string of previous jobs, from underwear sorting in Singapore, to freezer loading and unloading in Atlanta, to answering phones for Coca-Cola. When her barcode scanner stops functioning entirely, she is thrust into crisis, calling an unresponsive headquarters for help. She is interviewed about her place in the world and her life becomes the subject of a film and TV series. Her television persona is her own unknowable mirror image. The climax of the play seems to be the moment Tom and Joy find one another in the security line in the airport. Even this moment is subjectively fractured by differing accounts. Did it happen or didn’t it? Did they bloody each other’s noses or make love in the holding cell?
Falk Richter’s play has been translated into 40 languages from the original German, and performed all over the world. As a director, Ildiko Nemeth draws on her global touring experience as a member of the R.S. 9 Theatre Company from Budapest. The chorus divides unspecified spoken text among them, engaging in slapstick, breaking the fourth wall, and trading narration in bleak machine gun-style poetry. Moments of sketch comedy invade the severe aesthetic, aided by colourful full-wall projections animated by Chris Sharp and designed by Eric Marciano and Hao Bai. The basement space is transformed by the images, satisfying and trippy, reminiscent of Max Headroom of 80’s MTV. Brandon Lee Olson is a mask of panic as Tom, commanding the room with a healthy dose of diaphragm and a threatening urgency. Jeanne Lauren Smith is the non-descript Joy, voicing dissatisfaction with the service industry (that is achingly relatable) in such a way that the viewer hopes the best for her. Chris Tanner is the oddball comedic sadist, demanding the room move to his rhythm as he satirizes gossip television or shouts offensive things at a young starlet.
Electronic City travels through genre at high speed, echoing one of it’s many spoken truths: “Flexibility has become the prescribed pattern of behavior, the new type of amnesia, the loss of a sense of history.”
Innovative Theatre Awards 2019:
Outstanding Innovative Design
Outstanding Performance Art Production