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OK, Computer

A local playwright brings the internet to the stage

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Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Web of Deceit

By Colin Riley

Through July 16 at Red Branch Theatre

Despite the title, Colin Riley’s Web of Deceit, now running at the Red Branch Theatre as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is honest and heartfelt. We live in a weird era where, thanks to online social networking, people’s relationships are defined by the windows they juggle.

Web of Deceit juggles two windows. There’s a window in the middle of the stage, which characters look through, staring out at the audience. That’s the “real world;” it’s a territory into which we never venture. The other window--the window in which things are actually happening--is contained in a laptop whose crimson outside cover faces us on the desk at the front of the stage.

That keyboard is being pounded away at by Keysha (Rebecca Ballinger), a character who can best be described as a puppet in clown makeup with a detached, somewhat aloof bearing. Circulating around her is Mia (Lauren Saunders), a roommate dressed up a little like Raggedy Ann, who spends the play basically trying to break into Keysha’s emotional/digital solar system, while also trying desperately to check her own e-mail. As a sort of prophet/marionette of the Internet Apocalypse, Mark (Dustin Morris) enters the play at a few times to deliver a pithy observations about the direction in which humanity is heading.

In this ambitious journey into the present tense, playwright Riley is taking on an uncomfortable truth. We can recreate and reposition ourselves for posterity (i.e., Facebook) with one click of the mouse, so why go through the anguish of real life relationships to do it?

It’s a bold effort by Riley to confront a problem that a number of playwrights are facing up to. The theater is a place where space becomes possibility. How do we incorporate the all-powerful laptop--or relationships that are nourished in the digital world--without necessarily sucking the energy out of the stage itself?

In 2010, Single Carrot brought Eric Coble’s play Natural Selection to the stage; the laptop added a comically clever, if facile, dimension to the play. The one-person show History of Kisses at Studio Theatre in Washington featured a writer occasionally tapping text messages into his Blackberry. In what now seems to be a quaintly retro-version of Hamlet, Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre tried a few years ago to inject iPods into Hamlet’s life. At some point, we’re bound to see the young prince chatting with Horatio on Facebook, or tweeting his own death, but as far as I know, it hasn’t happened yet.

For playwrights of Riley’s age, the internet runs deep. It’s not just a subject of satire or comic relief. What is true, whether we like it or not, is that people now recreate themselves in the social network. For many 20-year-olds--and even for a few middle-aged congressmen--that’s where the drama of self-invention takes place or goes disastrously awry. But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it’s hard to see if there is a “there” there, much less one that can be recreated onstage.

So where does the theater begin to deal with the social network? You can assume that over time, the internet and “real” identities will stop appearing as foils, and find their way to the stage as elements of the essential human drama.

The cast and director of Web of Deceit have worked admirably to bring that new dynamic to life. The production has the support of a very good actress in Ballinger, who approaches her role with a mix of intensity and comic subtlety, without ever abandoning her laptop. Sanders and Morris give good performances, although they have to deal with the fact that as characters they are more or less satellites. Director Jennifer Spieler has clearly gone to great lengths to keep the play moving, even when it’s imprisoned by a screen that we never really see.

Ultimately, however, 80 minutes proves to be a long haul for a production in which, despite a lot of clever maneuvering, nothing real ever happens. If the stage is a place where writers give characters the tools to realize themselves, we never really make it to the stage here. The invisible screen remains the essential and all-powerful mover and shaker, and, despite his efforts, Riley never shakes its essential dominance.

A century ago, theater struggled with the industrial age and came out on top. Riley is taking up a challenge that playwrights in the digital age are going to have to face, whether they want to or not. As a work in progress this is the most thought-provoking and brave Baltimore Playwrights Festival production in a long time.

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