“[P]eople can let us know if they’d prefer to have their Facebook account permanently deleted after death. Until now, when someone passed away, we offered a basic memorialized account which was viewable, but could not be managed by anyone. By talking to people who have experienced loss, we realized there is more we can do to support those who are grieving and those who want a say in what happens to their account after death.”
– Facebook, official statement introducing the “Legacy Account” (12 February 2015)
I’m trying to recall the last time a show made me cry.
The fact that it’s taking me so long shows you just how few of them there have been. I can instantly recall a handful of shows that made me angry (In Braunau and Heisenberg are good examples), several shows that made me laugh (God bless Two-Mile Hollow), a couple of shows that disappointed me (if Grandeur and Office Hour were people, I’d want to fight them to the death), and far too many shows that have bored the hell out of me. Yet I’m hard-pressed to recall the last show that actually drove me to tears.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, this show made me cry. This is – after 4.48 Psychosis – the second show I’ve seen in several months that dealt with death in a way that was hauntingly real, despite its stylized presentation. (And both shows star Adrian Deane as the departed.) It’s a show that takes humanity’s long-held questions about death, filters them through the lens of social media, and punctuates it with the occasional pop song. So, by the time Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” is sung by a character in denial of her own grief, I was a mess.
It’s been said a person “dies three times”: first when their heart stops; the second when they’re buried; the third when their name is spoken for the last time. Well, what does the latter even mean when your life is compiled into a collection of Zuckerberg pixels that may never disappear?
Maggie is dead. She might not be aware of it yet, but she is. Floating through a state of limbo, she watches as her closest colleagues and family members gather together at a bar to pay tribute to her. Somehow, only the mysterious bartender is aware of the spectre haunting this group of otherwise disparate personalities.
Maggie is dead, but she isn’t gone. Occasionally, her friends and family speak as if she were there, but she can’t respond. As she watches their lives continue without her, the ability to let go becomes harder for both the living and the dead.
I’ve probably mentioned before that I got off Facebook in 2015 (didn’t bother deleting, just didn’t log in one day and haven’t since), Twitter in 2016, and Tumblr the year after (I never joined Instagram or Snapchat). The upside is that it does wonders for one’s mental health; the downside is that you may still miss out on important moments (several marriages, divorces, pregnancies, changes of residence, and even gender-reassignment surgeries) from the lives of your nearest and dearest. Since I haven’t posted every random thought, photographed every crack on the sidewalk, or replied to a single one of their birthday notices in three years, I was, for all intents and purposes, dead to my 230+ FB friends. A life outside of social media is like the proverbial tree falling in the woods.
That’s probably what NY-based troupe Five on a Match thought when they created the character of Maggie. It took me a minute to realize that she and the other characters’ “clipped” form of speech was meant to evoke status updates. Of these, the most haunting has to be Maggie’s occasional OCD-like repetition of the GPS coordinates of her final update. We watch as her friends update their statuses constantly – Tinder/Grindr dates, outdoor adventures, bi-polar crises, and at least one pregnancy – but Maggie herself (played by Adrian Deane as an ethereal will-o-wisp) is stuck in a loop seems as if it can never be broken. Her status will never again update.
As I recall the play and look over my notes, two themes stuck with me. The first was the play’s (apparent) refusal to punch down at social media itself. Far too often, criticism of social media – or the Internet in general – is reduced to sort of “You’re not living in the real world!” finger-wagging that accompanied the rise of television, home video, and personal computing. The people in Seen/By Everyone are lesser for using social media, they just lack the mental filters one would self-applying during an in-person meeting. (When Maggie’s Aunt Helen reveals her doctor is right-wing, everyone feels the need to chime in on whether or not Helen should leave him.)
The other point was the theme of transparency. When people reveal so much of themselves regularly, you’d like to think you know them intimately. But when one character (not Maggie) dies of heretofore unrevealed cancer, another character lashes out against the “selfishness” of keeping such a thing to oneself until death. The latter character is no less stricken with grief, but also hasn’t fully processed Maggie’s death. That’s why the other characters’ updates, good and bad, create such a comfort: they let them know that they aren’t alone.
The play doesn’t take a moral stance on technology because technology itself is amoral. In the end, no matter lead to Maggie’s death and no matter what moments she has preserved in digital amber, neither she nor those closest to her is able to move on until they truly learn to let go. And that is never as easy as you may think.
All of this gut-wrenching magical realism is brought to life by Yugen’s artistic director Nick Ishimaru. I’ll admit I know about Japanese Noh theatre, but I know enough about esoteric theatre to follow along. The play opens with all the cast members wearing domino masks resembling disco balls as they slowly walk towards the audience with their dialogue playing overhead. At all four corners of the stage (designed by Josh McDermott) are suspended tea cups that drip water from the ceiling into receptacles below. In the upstage-left is a bar. The bar grounds the setting in reality, as all the characters meet there and Maggie is (seemingly) unable to escape. Yet, the blank walls – save for projections – cacophonous soundscapes, and watching the characters “drink” from open fans all leave you ever-so-detached from reality. When the bartender (played with mechanical detachment by Enormvs Muñoz) drapes a cloth around Roxy (Stephanie Whigham) to form into a pregnant belly, it gracefully illustrates the passage of time – namely how moments seem to run together – better than a literal timestamp could.
Before I talk about the cast, it’s only fair to mention that I’ve known half of them for some time now (Annika Bergman, Paul Rodrigues, and Alan Coyne I’ve known and worked with several years now; both Stephanie Whigham and I have worked with Awesome Theatre regularly). Nevertheless, I was struck by how much I wound up loving this cast and the characters they play. I’m not familiar with J.J. Van Name, but I fully expected hers to be the character that would go on anti-Internet rant that so often accompanies contemporary tech stories. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. Aunt Helen is a character just as happy to share most of her life online as her young counterparts, but she’s worldly enough to know and accept that life does end.
The characters of Art (Alan Coyne) and John (Paul Rodrigues) are an interesting study in contrasts. The former is Maggie’s bi-polar neighbor, the latter her brother. Both are Gay men and start the play in similar positions, relationship-wise. By the end, their relationship statuses radically diverge, but I don’t recall the characters having any direct interaction. How much better each is for their new status is left ambiguous. Speaking of ambiguous, I believe it was Enormvs Muñoz’s bartender that clued me into the fact that everyone’s speaking in status updates. Muñoz’s character represents the pre-written copy for every website function, responding to all of Maggie’s inquiries with cold “enthusiasm” and a plastic smile. The actor – with his flashing blue suspenders – comes off as the world’s friendlies Terminator, and I mean that as a compliment.
Given that the last time I saw Stephanie Whigham on stage, she was playing Death herself, it was a nice contrast to see her as a character whose focus is life. My only real quibble with the role is that I couldn’t tell if she was Maggie’s friend or her sister? But the role that really got me was Annika Bergman’s “Elizabeth”. The character shows up just before the halfway point and is distinguished by her incessant party-girl posts and ever-present selfie-stick. No matter how grim another character may be, Elizabeth is quick to make their post all about herself and the way she rubs elbows with celebs. Yet, it’s her character that lingers. As the play goes on, we learn that Elizabeth was meant to meet up with Maggie the night she died, but it never happened. Since then, Elizabeth has been in a state of unshakable denial about Maggie’s death, which Elizabeth never processed. At one point, she actually sees Maggie and chases her around the stage in an attempt to finally bare her soul, but the chase is all in vain. It’s this sort of denial – played to heartbreaking perfection by Bergman – that broke me. Specifically, it was her karaoke-style rendition of “Time After Time”, stopping when it becomes to painful to continue. I can’t recall the last time an otherwise cliché character moved me so much.
And no, I haven’t forgotten Adrian Deane’s enthusiastic, confused, and frightened performance as Maggie, which holds the entire play together. What’s more, I have to give a shoutout to Liz Brent’s costumes (including the aforementioned flashing suspenders), Ella Cooley’s sound design (the disembodied voices and karaoke sounds), Brittany Mellerson’s lights, and Eteya Trinidad’s projections. All good work.
A few years back, I was on BART, headed home from a rehearsal. Looking around the train, I caught sight of a young woman using the then-new Facetime function on her iPhone. I know it was Facetime because she was speaking in Sign Language. Not being fluent in ASL, I have no idea what this woman was talking about (it could’ve been about some shitty reality show for all I know), but I remember suddenly realizing that this was the necessity for technology many of us take for granted. This woman was able to make a connection when she needed to.
Ultimately, technology will always be a means to an end. Its use says more about the use than the tech itself. Features like the “Legacy Profile” can act as tributes to departed loved ones, but there’s a certain creepiness to someone dead being given that kind of immortality. Seeing them as if they never left means you can’t properly deal with them not being there anymore.
I’ve seen several shows this year that deal with death; some have been touching, some horribly condescending, nearly all dealt with it in the classical sense. Seen/By Everyone looks at death from a blatantly modern perspective to ask “Are we nothing more than what we leave behind?” I’m not sure I know the answer, but it makes for one of better shows I’ve seen this year.
Seen/By Everyone is scheduled to run until the 21st of October at NOHspace in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.