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Mickle Maher's Song About Himself is (almost) his best play yet

The Theater Oobleck cofounder mesmerizes with a dystopian world where the Web is all.



While doing some online research on Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, a poem Mickle Maher cribs and corrupts to singular effect in his nearly perfect new play Song About Himself, I clicked onto a website called, which purports to be "the authoritative source for original and insightful articles and ideas on a broad range of topics related to the humanities." Some unseen roving intelligence—the one that skulks behind nearly every website, throwing up enticements to click on things other than what you've sought out—suggested a different articlemyriad essay, unrelated to Whitman.

I clicked and got this: "An analysis of the novel 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad as well as some of the important themes in 'Heart of Darkness' by Conrad for that matter as well as the novel 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' by Tolstoy leads the reader to conclude that it is and 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad that is the more modernist of the two."

The Whitman article I finally found was also unhelpful, although it appears to have been revelatory to a previous reader, who commented, "Appreciation for this Article.We are facing common problem.and i locate finally Remedy."

It's impossible to know if the Internet's allegedly democratizing effect diminishes the potency and cogency of the English language, or if it merely reveals what dreadful writers most of us have always been. In any case, the massive jumble of tortured, superficial, solipsistic gibberish that increasingly passes for meaningful expression can't bode well for our species. Insert anxious-face emoticon.

Maher amplifies the problem to absurd yet sobering proportions. In a dystopian future, the Web, overfilled with catch phrases, trite idioms, smiley faces, and selfies, has become the sole repository of all information and language. It's where the world narrates and comprehends its own existence. But viruses and malware have corrupted all content, rendering humanity unable to understand or express much of anything. People pass their days mumbling in one another's general direction, slogging through streets perpetually laden with slush.

From the murk emerges Carol, perhaps the only person remaining who can form intelligible sentences. She's desperate for human contact—conversations with her hot plate don't cut it—and she's received a mysterious invitation to join YouSpake, a social media site on what's left of the Web (now called "the Weed"). She must first buy a musical instrument and learn a jazz lick, the sonic password she'll play into her "leaf-sized tray" to gain admittance to YouSpake. Once she's in, she finds the "unnamed Host or Hostess," an automated monitor desperate to re-create the old Internet where people "spoke like gods." To Carol's great dismay, no one else has joined YouSpake. Perhaps she's the first. Or perhaps the Host/Hostess keeps others out, a possibility rendered more likely when Tod, a hopelessly inarticulate mailman, slips inadvertently into YouSpake. And every few minutes, the site crashes.

In typical fashion, Maher creates a world of ridiculous, ominous inadequacy, given mesmerizing expression in this Theater Oobleck premiere. Making sense of Maher's stage world is no easy trick, as the script is nothing but transcripts of voice-command chat logs—and reads much like the syntactical garble of The three characters never quite speak as themselves but instead perform the instantaneous record of what some unidentified intelligence has deemed to be their words and sounds. Thus they can't laugh or sob or even cough; they can merely say "laughs" or "sobs" or "coughs." When no one says anything, the Host/Hostess can't help but say, "There is a pause." It's a decidedly tricky world to comprehend at first—exacerbated by Maher's insistence there be no set—but once you're in, it's a rich, resounding, disturbingly familiar place.

For 90 minutes, Maher keeps Carol and the Host/Hostess at cross-purposes. Carol wants nothing but "back-and-forth" with another human, while the Host/Hostess needs Carol only to "lengthy post," the first step toward rebuilding coherence in the world. Both of their aims are necessary to rescue humanity, yet they're mutually exclusive, giving their fraught interactions an aching urgency. Throughout, Maher borrows specific lines and images from Song of Myself—ironically, a work fundamentally about self-reliance—as well as Whitman's thematic spirals, intoxicating rhythms, and circuitous plainspokenness, all rendered with great clarity and warmth by Oobleck's cast: Guy Massey, Colm O'Reilly, and Diana Slickman, who, astonishingly, work without a director, as Oobleck has done for 26 years.

Maher hasn't found an adequate ending yet; his current Twilight Zone-esque twist leads down a conceptual cul-de-sac. But of his many artful, resonant plays, this one has the potential to eclipse them all.  v

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