This Future Feels Familiar…

11/11/2009 3:00 PM |

The set of What Once We Felt is minimal and reminds of the inside of a ships hull, done in vinyl siding that runs down into a backyard deck. The lighting is all purples, blues, and black lights, with the occasional spot here and there, as well as a cheap projection screen up high and stage right. Director Ken Rus Schmoll seems fond of switching scenes without removing the previous actors from the stage, like leaving Macy and Astrid in shadow at the fancy restaurant as the lights come up on the Tradepack cradling her dying mother, an exercise in juxtaposition that only heightens the sense that Schmoll is trying to hold our hands as we watch, which is annoying given the relatively accessible material.

And although some of the futuristic aspects of the play are blatant, it’s hard to get into it because some things don’t seem to ever change. (Like, its quite simple to "download" a baby, but the food at the restaurant doesn’t come in pill form, as it totally will in the future.) The overall effect of the set design and costumes gives the impression that both Healy and Schmoll haven’t fully bought into the future they’re creating, as only some things have evolved while others remain in their present forms. Formally, this could be taken to represent the two positions on print: how much needs to change to make it better, and how much can we leave the same? Laura expounds eloquently on the full body experience that she will create with multi-media books, books that make you feel like you’re there, but the set of What Once We Felt leaves more to the imagination and is no worse off.

The argument within the performance in regards to this coming extinction—is the multimedia world we’re moving towards an evolution of the words on the page or a denial of what matters most, the page itself?—is very evenly positioned. Healy even takes into account a literature vs. entertainment dualism (can the same literature be appealing to blue- and white-collar readers?) and the question of who the authors are writing for and why. It all works very well, even if there isn’t enough of it, but it’s hard to tell where or how the futuristic District 9-like apartheid story fits into this vision. Why the play couldn’t be set right now, when this sort of battle actually rages everyday as newspapers are shut down and literature is already delivered straight to your iPhone, is a total mystery. Despite my best efforts to try and find the reason this play needs to be set in a future we’ve all seen before, I could not, save perhaps for the fact that you can’t YouTube a child into your arms yet, but that alone doesn’t justify all the sci-fi. And although one assumes that the death of print is in fact looming, I truly wonder if it will take as long to finally occur as it takes our bioengineering geniuses to figure out how to "download" a baby.

Perhaps this is just the skeptical sci-fi buff in me, but I can’t even begin to imagine the technology it will take to stream an infant, whereas the technology to kill print is already tucked into our back pockets and purses. Couple all that futuristic mumbo jumbo with the issues about publishing and writing, and one is left with a great play about literature set in a very distant and very dark future just for the hell of it. This play has all the notes necessary to be a very astute lesson on the most important parts of the publishing industry, and just plain old quality novel writing, and why they can (should) never be replaced by the multi-media experience output of fiction mills (like this). But the unnecessary and tired portrayal of a future—à la Farenheight 451, 1984, A Brave New World, etc.—where nobody feels anything about anything anymore (whether we once felt it or not) detracts from the comments on literature. The resulting experience divides our attentions, and leaves viewers feeling a little unfulfilled on both accounts.

(photo credit: Gregory Costanzo)