Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
Sometimes you’re not sure if a show is trying to make a comment, emulate reality or extrapolate within established context. ‘Seen / By Everyone’ at HERE arts typifies this. The concept is a play about life and death composed, largely, of Facebook posts and comments. In theory, an excellent exercise in verbatim theatre. In reality… a mess. There’s no coherent through line, beyond vague attempts at a theme and a symbolic character arc. It leans on its concept like a gimmick, but despite its commitment to the bit, there’s no evidence of a thesis. What occurs, then, is an array of scenes that would be bewildering if they weren’t so boring. Occasional moments of poignancy are created, and the tech aspect of the show is gorgeous, but as an experience for an audience, it’s an awful slog.
As mentioned above, the script for the show is an amalgamation and appropriation of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Facebook posts and comments. They are reworked to become monologues, discussions, and conversations. There is a vague idea that the show is set at a wake, and digital condolences flood throughout. Also processing is a thread about a man getting divorced, a man terminally lonely, a discussion of foreskin and karaoke samplings. The people having these discussions are attended by an ominous bartender, and a girl in a white dress who runs about the stage haphazardly at irregular intervals. Occasionally, people are diverted to a confession cam, or put on glitter-ball masks and shout. I’d say it feels like watching the manifestation of a bad first draft, but actually it’s more like watching someone’s rough brainstorm notes come to life.
I suppose the essential problem of giving full voice to people’s Facebook output, is that most people aren’t great writers. Now you might say that verbatim theatre works despite the fact that most people aren’t great public speakers. That’s true, but verbatim theatre captures the essential honesty of uninterrupted, unplanned thought, captured, recorded, and reproduced authentically. Facebook posts are not typically fonts of honesty or hidden depth, so using them in a theatrical context captures their inherent simplicity, repetitiveness and, often, shallowness. If the piece’s goal is to take online superficiality, blow it up giant size and smear it in your face, then it works perfectly. But then, why would you want to do that? You could just go on Facebook. Yes, there are occasional moments of great honesty, just like on Facebook, but they are few and far between. Most of it just sounds like badly written dialogue because that’s what Facebook conversations are when you take them out of context.
From an acting point of view I can’t find too much fault. The problems of this piece all stem from the construction of the text, not the manner in which it is delivered. Many of the performers have genuinely touching moments, particularly on the stage bar’s apparent ‘Confession Cam’. In fact, the technology aspect of the show informed many of ‘Seen’s best moments. Screens behind the bar showed trippy trick-video, cartoons and astral graphics, creating a period indeterminate retro sci-fi feel. Large screens on the ceiling and far wall of the traverse stage allowed for some exciting visuals, as well as the faux-karaoke gimmick the play used at various times. Additionally, the bartender character used a camera on his person to broadcast a live feed to one or other of the screens at various times. He would film the ‘lost’ female character as she ran about the stage, and when she stood in front of he screens her image would be duplicated infinitely behind her. Simple tricks, but creating cool visuals. Of course, because there was no emotional context for it provided by the show, that’s all they were, cool visuals; but credit where credit’s due. Rey Sun Ruey-Horng’s tech design, mixed with Christopher Heilman’s set design was undeniably impressive.
‘Seen / By Everyone’ is an interesting concept. Using online discourse to create real-world interaction. It’s just a shame the show has nothing to say. It doesn’t seem to be indicting online communication, nor commending it, nor presenting it ‘as is’ and free of judgement. It does seem to be trying to tell a story, but I’ll be buggered by a canary if I can tell you what it is. There are vague ongoing threads throughout, but none of them add up to any kind of a narrative. I was too confused to feel anything, too busy trying to justify all the incoherent images to accept there was a story. If this review reads as vague, then please, by all means go and see the show, because I promise you it is the spring whence the vaguery originates. That said, don’t go see this show, it’s not worth your time. You’re not going to learn anything you couldn’t learn from ten minutes on Facebook.
As a side note, if you want to see online comments put to more interesting use, I can recommend YouTuber ‘Jacksfilms’ series ‘Your Grammar Sucks’. It’s much funnier, and much more coherent. If you want to see a good play about grieving online, check out ‘Canuck Downunder’ by Jessica Kazamel at the NYC Fringe this Summer.
‘Seen / By Everyone’ is presented at the HERE Arts Centre as part of the SubletSeries@Here. It was created and produced by ‘Five on a Match’, conceived by Amir Darvish and Meg MacCary. It runs until June 25th, all shows are at 8:30pm. HERE Arts is located on 145 6th Avenue NYC.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)