New World, Same Problems: ‘New World Disorder’ at Gritty City Rep

New World Disorder at Gritty City Rep - programme

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: we learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
– Stephen Hawking, British Telecom tv spot, 1993

I’m a bigger picture kinda guy when it comes to tech: nearly every “glued to a smartphone” argument made by contemporary Luddites is interchangeable with the old “face buried in a book” argument from days gone by. And remember, even The Church opposed the printing press because it would give the unwashed masses access to The Bible. And women using public transportation have been using books to avoid harassers and pick-up jerks long before digital devices were ever conceived. If anything, most technology is an evolution of different ways for people to avoid conversations they don’t want to have.

Having said that, there is a certain truth to the downsides a more connected world has brought us. Even if one fails to mention the countless ways the flickering screens are straining our brains and vision, online interaction is no replacement for in-person contact. I’m wary of anyone with more than 300 friends on FB or who follows thousands of different accounts on Twitter. The majority of those will be strangers, meaning you’ve connected with them for the sheer hope that you’ll always have something to see when you hit “Refresh;” vicariously experiencing events to which you weren’t invited. This is one of the reasons I stopped using those sites and apps a few years back.

New World Disorder shows an imagined future where the only known form of interaction is via the blinking screen. As its title suggests, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a clear influence. This play will likely never be revered as that classic novel, but there’s something to be said for playwright Chisa Hutchinson gearing her story directly to teens, whereas Huxley’s novel is just assigned to them.

And both have more sex than one would expect.

New World Disorder by Gritty City - set

Set by Casey Fern. Photo by Me.

The years is 2340, and the place is Isotopia. It’s the start of another sunny day. Well, it might be anyway – Isotopia is a subterranean metropolis, far away from the fears (and infections) of the surface world. Every day is the same as the last: wake up; exercise; work; sleep; do it all again. The banal repetition and isolation of its citizens has proven so effective that Isotopia would appear to exist on a higher state of being… until someone dies. In fact, a lot of people die. When Calla, an inquisitive woman who longs for more, begins asking questions, she isn’t told to stop so much as threatened to do so.

But she doesn’t stop. Calla not only continues to ask questions, but following clues will lead her all the way to the surface. Who knows what she’ll find there? And who knows how many will follow her?

This being my first non-Shakespearean Gritty City show, I wasn’t expecting so many obscenities. The company is so solidified in my mind as “youth theatre” that I guess I made the mistake of conflating that with “children’s theatre”. As such, I was taken aback to hear the mostly-baby-faced cast spout dialogue one would expect in a Richard Pryor routine. And I certain didn’t expect there to be an entire scene revolving around a young woman using a dildo, unbeknownst to her male chat-mate. Yet, I didn’t raise an eyebrow when they acted out the violence of Macbeth. Go figure.

But, to the story: in addition to the aforementioned Huxley novel, Hutchinson’s script also clearly owes a debt to such “running man” sci-fi tales as THX-1138, Logan’s Run, and, well, The Running Man. As the script was originally commissioned for a collegiate setting, it occasionally falls into an overly-expository state one would expect in a final exam. As I’ve said before, world-building is one of the toughest parts of fantasy storytelling. Hutchinson mostly keeps the dialogue conversational, but will frequently veer into reading-from-an-atlas territory. Having said that, if this script was intended for a younger audience, then it makes sense that everything would be easy-to-follow from Page 1. And though it clearly falls on the side of free speech and expression, it encourages healthy debate as the best way to make progress. Aside from one final act speech that falls flat (Gideon’s bird monologue), it’s not a bad dystopian tale.

Plus, artistic director Lindsay Krumbein makes good use of the script’s strengths. Though it’s sometimes clear which cast members are first-time performers (which, according to the ending curtain speech, was quite a few of them), she wisely directs them to find the humanity in their characters. As taken aback as I was by these young’uns cussin’ up a storm, I liked the way that it wasn’t done in a way to shame them. The “dildo” scene will be talked about because of its overt sexuality, but it’s also one of the most refreshing portrayals of female sexuality I’ve seen in some time – it’s funny without mocking. And the scene of Calla making it to the surface and experiencing her first sensation of human touch manages to be equally moving and funny. Add to that the use of two lesbian characters as representatives of emotional maturity and freedom, and it makes for a story that contemporary teens may find easy to see themselves reflected.

All of this takes place on Casey’s horizontally bifurcated set. The lower level, where the majority of the action takes place, is a sterile white space with lights appearing from floor panels as they would in a discothèque (which is all the more fitting during the “morning workout” scenes). The upper level is covered in foliage, with the back wall used as a projection screen used as Marc-Éddy Loriston’s way of suggesting more space. Director Krumbein selected the costumes, which see most of the cast in plumber-like jumpsuits. Though it’s safe to say the most notable was “the Tron suit” used for the morning exercise droid.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Hutchinson’s script has such clear flaws: the increased of more advanced technology in our daily lives isn’t as cut and dry as some would suggest. If the recent FCC decision about Net Neutrality is any indication, it’s less important as to what technology is used so much as how it’s used. Shortcomings notwithstanding, the script mostly stands on its own, bolstered by a creative set, simple direction, and a bold young cast.

GRADE:                B+

New World Disorder is scheduled to run until the 16th of December at The Flight Deck in Oakland.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
Though a youth show, the production features explicit language and some sexually suggestive content.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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