The New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory festival is usually a reliable summer treat: microbursts of original theater that could bring exciting innovation, brilliant disaster, or anything in between–but the result is never boring, and I’ve never regretted seeing one of their shows (even at the un-airconditioned original-flavor Ohio, where one sometimes needed to balance run time against weather predictions when purchasing tickets). So how do you reinvent that energy in a time of pandemic? Well, a play about the rise and fall of a tech start-up, presented through the technology of a corporate meeting platform–Zoom, what else?–feels entirely, perhaps sadly, apropos.
The inaugural production of the new company SOCIETY, Beginning Days of True Jubilation satirically charts the rise and fall of Asphera, a start-up having something to do with water, something “world-changing” that’s never specified more concretely than by lots of stock footage of forest streams and oceans in a detail-free promotional video. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Theranos, the startup that raised billions on its promise to revolutionize medical testing…if only its signature product had ever worked, or its founder hadn’t lied so thoroughly and so frequently about the company’s results as to wind up criminally charged. (The white turtleneck that the CEO wears is a clever nod to Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes’s black-turtleneck uniform, modeled after Steve Jobs.) Headed by playwright Mona Mansour and director Scott Illingworth, SOCIETY uses a version of the Joint Stock method, in which the entire company serves as a dramaturgical ensemble to workshop a piece, using research, interviews, improvisation, and other explorations to generate a corpus of material from which the playwright (Mansour, here) will then build a script to be performed by the acting company who created it.
Here, that script isn’t subtle in its indictment of start-up culture; it may begin with the seemingly sincere moment of a visionary CEO (Annie Fox) describing the roots of her vision, but from the moment we see the fervor with which the applicants interview and sell themselves, we’re seeing Asphera through a sardonic lens. The filter that Zoom provides enhances the brisk anthropological quality of the piece; we feel like we’re peering in a little illicitly.
One of the presiding moods of the piece quickly becomes a sense of collective paranoid isolation that feels all too apropos to our moment. Despite the cultlike fervor of the interview phase, and despite the efforts of the teams dedicated to both engagement and motivation (separate, of course), the imagined Asphera headquarters is described as a windowless bunker, which most of the staff members never leave. And so it’s oddly fitting to atomize it further, to have each performer trapped in an individual Zoom window, literalizing the isolation they’re increasingly feeling as the hollowness of their mission becomes apparent. The humor gets bleaker as the project’s future looks dimmer, too.
The production format also works to convey the anxiety that the CEO and the ruthlessly pragmatic CFO (Rebecca S’Manga Frank) are always watching, always able to pop into any encounter at a moment’s notice (as, of course, do we)–but also, their presence can always be withheld. The epitome of the simultaneous surveillance and absence in Asphera’s culture is a motivational talk the CEO gives as the overall mood begins to shift from absolute faith to creeping doubt; as messianic fervor begins to bleed into blinkered refusal to acknowledge reality: “Be alive. Be here. Do this.” That’s it. That’s meant to keep the dream alive. (I will leave you to guess whether it works or not.)
Mansour and Illingworth punctuate scenes of straightforward dialogue with choral breaks of a sort, with the entire company dancing in long shot, or repeating the company motto in unison, or presented in extreme closeup. Here, too, the visual geometry of Zoom, the sameness with which each actor is framed and takes up space, adds to the mood: the company claims their uniqueness and originality, but they’re really just as cookie-cutter, following just as rigid a model, as everyone else.
Zoom has its limitations, of course, and the piece definitely leans toward making the most of those limitations rather than trying to break through them–which makes sense, given the content of the piece, but can also make it a little static. For the most part, the production works within the contours of the spaces from which the actors are performing, rather than adding backgrounds or playing with perspective. This adds some moments of well-played absurdity, but the disparate environments work less well in the scenes that contain one-on-one conversation, brief moments of shared humanity or panic. And the scenes that focus on the bizarreness of Asphera’s physical environment are of course difficult to craft without said physical environment (though the manipulation of a tiny model of the CEO’s office is a nice touch).
Mansour’s script relies heavily on archetypes—the mythologized founder and her stalwart sidekick; the manchild genius; the millennial corporate pep squad; the buzzword-spouting team leader totally disengaged from her team’s actual work (the ensemble is solid overall; Alex Templer stands out in this role). We’re zoomed out, as it were, to focus on patterns and structures in a world of hypercapitalism promoting itself as the solution to its own problems, rather than humans and emotions. It gives the message clarity, though sometimes at the expense of characters, and the digital format enhances the archetypicality of it–everyone displayed in the same square boxes–in a way that can make it harder to follow character lines through the different segments of the piece. The pattern and the analysis stand up, but only a few human moments stand out: A woman crouched behind a potted plant, unable to minimize her unhappiness when talking to her mother. The scientist who knows exactly what’s not working and why, but won’t be believed. The outside contractor PR flack, trying to translate a carefully contentless announcement into Spanish.
Director Scott Illingworth builds a real sense of collaboration and shared siege consciousness out of his performers in their separate environments, and makes good use of the possibilities for visual pattern produced by a Zoom grid. Still, he sometimes gets a little gimmicky in trying to create actions that would go unremarked in physical performance: handing a coworker a tissue or a beverage from screen to screen. Rather than enhance the sense that the performers are in the same room, it starts to feel like sleight-of-hand when done too frequently, and I found myself watching the trick rather than paying attention to what was happening in those scenes. The few moments where the boundaries of the format are pushed–putting objects instead of faces in front of the screen, for example–felt more exciting.
What a time to launch a theatre company premised on collaboratively conceived theater–and it’s a credit to the research done pre-pandemic, which, as director Illingworth notes in the program, feels “like it happened in a different world,” that the details of Asphera, from the clashing aspirations of the Engagement team and the Motivation team to the team leader phoning in her leadership from a tropical retreat, ring sneakily true. As Illingworth’s program note says, people like this “believe the right messaging can make problems go away”–a sentiment that sounds all too familiar right now.