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28: Pictures of Life in a High-Tech World

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Goodman Theatre Studio

By Albert Williams

Perhaps you've seen the new TV commercial for Klondike ice cream bars, the one that shows William Shakespeare being challenged by an offscreen announcer to write a sitcom. The Bard refuses to lower himself--until he tastes the irresistible dessert. "Enter precocious punk," the English language's greatest playwright suddenly intones, and in walks Gary Coleman as the quintessential surly black sitcom stereotype, clad in Elizabethan costume but brimming with modern attitude and heralded by the delighted chortling of a laugh track.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its sheer crassness and inanity, the Klondike ad sums up all too well the crisis that theater artists face in the television age, which threatens to render them impotent if not completely irrelevant. While some writers and actors may use stage work as a jumping-off point for Hollywood careers, the theater as an art form faces a real and increasingly dangerous threat from TV--as a medium as well as an industry.

It's not just a matter of competing for customers--especially in the age of cable, when TV drains potential theatergoers' entertainment budgets as well as leisure time. Television has transformed the way people take in and respond to information, and the change does not bode well for the stage. Young audiences are less and less receptive to theater's traditionally strongest elements--leisurely linear plot development, rich language, and subtext, which in a good play often contradicts the characters' explicit statements and conscious motives. Visually oriented and driven by advertising, TV has scant use for literary nuance and psychological ambiguity. And its fast-paced, crosscutting narrative style is likely to foster ever-shorter audience attention spans.

The TV-trained 20-somethings whose minimal interest in theater should sound an alarm throughout the profession have been conditioned by what cultural critic Neil Postman, in his astute book Amusing Ourselves to Death, identifies as the "Now... this" syndrome. It's named for the phrase news anchors use to ease viewers from one segment to another--or, as Postman writes, "to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see [thus] acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously." Why should writers or an audience invest themselves in characters and events--real or fictional--that exist only to use up the allotted time between all-important commercials?

Many young theater artists, faced with this situation, merely ape the TV aesthetic with incoherent, gag-driven plots and caricatured acting. But stuck in a state of denial, almost none of them address TV's impact on our culture, let alone on their own profession. So the Lookingglass Theatre Company's new multimedia production, 28: Pictures of Life in a High-Tech World, wins points just with its intention, which is to explore "the effects of technology and modern media on American society." And though this ensemble-written work is deeply flawed, the flaws themselves are often illuminating.

Conceived and directed by Lookingglass member Laura Eason, 28 is defined by Daniel Ostling's set--a series of interlocking scaffolds (representing a high-rise apartment building) framed by a traditional proscenium arch. (In a prologue, the actors read aloud from in front of the proscenium from a 1914 book about "how to see a play"--"the most democratic and popular form of storytelling," the antiquated text proclaims.) Half of the proscenium is designed in curlicued classical style; the other half is covered with TV monitors. Indeed, 28 takes its title from the number of hours per week the average American adult spends watching the tube, according to a report in the January 1997 issue of the Economist. Twenty-eight is also the age of several of the nine characters whose restless lives drive the action. This clutch of artsy types--who could easily be projections of the Lookingglass folks themselves--includes Gwen (Tracy Walsh), a onetime fringe-theater actor now starring in a sitcom not unlike Friends, the NBC hit that features real-life Lookingglass member David Schwimmer. Gwen's return to "a place very much like Chicago," as the program describes the play's setting, coincides with a birthday celebration for two of her friends, both turning 29. Kate (Heidi Stillman), a director of documentary videos, eagerly anticipates the transition: in one amusing vignette, she makes arrangements with various party guests, juggling them via call waiting and changing her vocal tone depending on who's on the line. But for Sarah (the appealing Shirley Anderson), a corporate human-resources specialist whose marriage to architect Michael (Thomas J. Cox) is disintegrating under the pressure of their two careers, it's a reminder of her unfulfilled, overworked life. She'd rather stay home alone with the comforting virtual companionship of the TV and the telephone, talking to friends and family without actually having to see anyone.

Sarah's sense of plugged-in isolation is also evident in her neighbor Matt (Rich Hutchman), a compulsive channel surfer and Net browser who admittedly prefers virtual sex to actual dates, and in Alois, a German electronic composer (who writes sound tracks for Web sites) whose girlfriend overseas has just ended their relationship: long-distance communication via phone and fax was no substitute for the real thing. When he's not mooning over his ex, Alois brims with admiration for American architecture, which he sees as all form without any of the messy meaning of European buildings. But Michael, the architect, laments the qualities Alois exalts--and, being an old-fashioned guy, Michael also sticks by Sarah despite her moodiness, long after many men would have brought this starter marriage to an end.

Jump-cutting back and forth in the style of TV and interspersing various vignettes with short comic monologues on "why I love technology" (one character extols the efficiency of his electric rice cooker), 28 skims these and other story lines but rarely probes them; nor does it take much of a stand on the relationships it depicts. The deliberate juxtaposition of contrasting opinions on architecture seems to sum up one of the play's points: in a computer-connected world, where everyone has not only an opinion but the means to broadcast it, no one's opinion counts for much. But this relativistic attitude gives the play itself an emotional neutrality antithetical to the theater--certainly to the kind of love-it-or-hate-it theater that made Lookingglass a troupe to be reckoned with several years back. Spending a little time here, a little time there with its various characters--whose fairly mundane problems aren't nearly as interesting as Eason and her cast seem to think--28 rambles rather than builds toward an unconvincing, sentimental happy ending that seems dictated not by dramatic logic but by the running out of this 80-minute one-act's allotted time. Now...this: enter precocious punk.

Stuck in the middle of this TV-style ensemble piece is a "play within the play" that recalls the self-consciously theatrical story-theater exotica that Lookingglass used to be known for. Presented as the project of two other characters--playwright-director Charley (Doug Hara) and Korean-American actress Anne (Jane C. Cho)--it's drama in the style of medieval Asia, as different from the rest of 28 as can be: linear rather than fragmented, stylized rather than naturalistic, with a hierarchy of leading and supporting roles rather than an ensemble of equally important characters. And the story it tells is a conscientious contrast to the "real" lives that 28 depicts. Unyong (Cho), concubine to Prince Amp'yong (Paul Christopher Hobbs), falls in love with a humble poet, secretly communicating with him via handwritten notes--and spending, yes, 28 nights of glorious passion before their affair is discovered by the prince, who sentences Unyong to death. Romantic devotion gives the enslaved Unyong's life a meaning worth dying for; how unlike Sarah and Gwen and Alois and Matt, who lead lives of limitless choice but little fulfillment.

But the significance of the Asian-style play is undercut by its preciousness and artificiality--all too emblematic of a contemporary theater run dry of ideas and out of touch with the world around it. Performed with nary a hint of self-parody, it nevertheless could be a satire of a certain strain of Chicago theater that uses faux oriental elegance as a substitute for relevance and adopts an air of pseudonaivete to mask intellectual shallowness. And given that it runs uninterrupted for some 15 minutes in the middle of all the rapid crosscutting (which reaches its peak in a video collage compiled by John Musial), 28 feels like an evening spent channel surfing, then getting stuck on Bravo.

The subtitle of 28--a last-minute change from "The State of Humanity in a High-Tech World"--is a tacit admission of Lookingglass's inability to do much more than scratch the surface of its theme. The show leaves many important issues unaddressed. Among them: how TV blends news, entertainment, and advertising so that public figures, fictional characters, and commercial pitchmen have become not only inescapable but indistinguishable; how a handful of conglomerates controls virtually all entertainment--as the Southern Baptists are discovering in their ill-advised attempt to boycott the Disney empire (one may disagree with the Baptists' mission, but their plight should sound a warning about encroaching media monopolism); and how the age of instant communications affects the lives of the poor, who are ever more left out (all the characters here are affluent middle-class types, which creates an irritating sense of insularity).

But 28 does raise issues almost no other off-Loop theater has dared to broach. I hope lots of people, especially serious admirers and practitioners of the theater, see this effort and continue the explorations it's begun. If theater is to grow--or, for that matter, survive--it's going to have to draw on the vibrant energy of electronic forms of communication to develop a compelling, relevant hybrid form. 28 may fall far short of that goal, but it's a noteworthy first step.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.

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