By Falk Richter; Translated by Marlene J. Norst; Adapted and Directed by Ildiko Nemeth
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 5.10.19
New Stage Performance Space, 36 West 106th Street
by Ran Xia on 4.28.19
The ensemble in Electronic City.
BOTTOM LINE: A commentary on global capitalism, the highly stylized, expressionistic Electronic City is about human connection and isolation.
Electronic City is not a play in its traditional sense. It’s stylized from the very first moment—in its aesthetics, structure, and means of storytelling. The two main protagonists are introduced separately: Tom (Brandon Lee Olson) and Joy (Jeanne Lauren Smith) are each trapped in boomerang-like loops of a nightmare-scape. Tom bounces from one hotel room to the next, always on the go to the next meeting, the next destination, his briefcase becoming a security blanket for someone whose worth is defined by the meetings he’s attended. Meanwhile, Joy is in a constant battle with the register at work, unable to communicate meaningfully with technology.
But we don’t quite discover the two characters' connection until Joy makes an attempt to contact Tom, albeit without success. The two storylines, presented parallel to each other, occur in relative isolation, but indeed they are connected—by various forms of technology, social media, and a shared history. Later on, we discover how they meet, and see their longing for each other.
As Tom and Joy, Olson and Smith narrate their characters' points of views in a liminal space without interacting with each other or with the chorus members, who in turn complete the story with more expressionism—along with abstract visual projections, the chorus provides both choreography and a kind of vocal orchestra that adds more atmosphere than discernible information. Adding to this highly stylized nature, all performers wear a uniform—black pants and shirt, and a black bobbed wig. The one exception is Joy, who’s in a yellow blazer, something echoed by one chorus member (Maciej Bartoszewski) as he stands in for her while Smith stands aside to narrate Joy's story.
With its technical design, Electronic City successfully evokes the sensory overload its characters experience, making the few quiet and genuine moments poignant. As Joy, Smith is a standout in portraying a sympathetic character with nuance and gravitas in an otherwise somewhat confusing tale of modernity. The chorus members’ commitments are also impressive: Bjorn Bolinder’s delivery of the play’s abstract text provides the necessary clarity to process and follow the story, and it is a delight to watch Chris Tanner transform himself with ease into a whole array of recognizable personalities.
While I understand and appreciate the dystopian aesthetics the production is aiming for with its Greek chorus of the technological era, I wish we might discern more individual personalities within the ensemble. With the rapid and dense text, it sometimes becomes difficult to follow the various threads. It is also difficult to recognize what the chorus represents from moment to moment, especially with so much sensory distraction. Essentially, adapter/director Ildiko Nemeth sacrifices clarity in storytelling for style.
I commend the ambition behind Electronic City. Certainly, a commentary on the evils of global capitalism, and just how helpless individuals are before such a force, is extremely relevant. And perhaps Electronic City is meant to be confusing—maybe the goal is to mirror the whirlpool of modern life, with our intentions driven more by likes and followers than conscious introspection. But if not, I hope the show will continue to develop after this production, perhaps finding a way to communicate its message with more clarity.
(Electronic City plays at New Stage Performance Space, 36 West 106th Street, through May 10, 2019. Running time is 65 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8. Tickets are $25 ($20 students/seniors) and are available at newstagetheatre.org or by calling 212-422-0028.)
Electronic City is by Falk Richter. Translated by Marlene J. Norst. Adapted and Directed by Ildiko Nemeth. Lighting Design by Federico Restrepo. Costume Design by Brandon Olson. Projection Design and Digital Production by Eric Marciano and Hao Bai. Original Projection Artwork by Chris Sharp.
The cast is Maciej Bartoszewski, Beth Dodye Bass, Bjorn Bolinder, Tatyana Kot, Brandon Olson, Rikin Shah, Jeanne Lauren Smith, and Chris Tanner.