What happens when new technology is suddenly available to everyone and is unrestricted and unregulated? That question is at the heart of Swandive’s mONSTER, a play set in 1994, the early days of the internet. Nessa (Jamie Fields) is a college freshman, looking to make the most out of her first year of college. But she isn’t expecting roommate Brill (Kelsey McMahon) who’s taken over half the room with a desk full of the latest computer equipment who refuses to sleep except for 20 minutes every four hours and who vehemently guards her computer screen as much as she hides what she’s doing there. RA Greg (Avi Aharnoi) hints that there’s more to this than meets the eye and tries to get Nessa to move elsewhere before she agrees to the the roommate guidelines the two roommates discuss. But Nessa is too focused on having her idealized college experience to recognize something is very, very wrong in the room. Eventually, she learns that Brill doesn’t even go to college and she’s commandeered the room to fight off something that’s lurking the internet that, unless it is constantly monitored, will take over and destroy humanity. With a Black Mirror meets H.P. Lovecraft tackles modern technology vibe, this show is eerie, unsettling, and tense. All the three actors are wonderful, especially McMahon, who goes from 90s grunge chill to deeply terrified and protective in the blink of an eye.
The internet is a complicated place, and this script tries to tackle that. The show is wonderfully designed, with a spooky, claustrophobic set by by Sean McArdle, costuming by Lisa Conley, lighting by Jesse Cogswell, and sound by Kevin Springer, that all captures the feel of a 1990s dorm room while capturing the technical power of the monster that lurks beneath the surface. I did struggle with a couple of things in this piece. One part was the language – I generally really like stylized or beautiful language, but I got lost or distracted a few times in this show. Some of the technical jargon was hard for me to follow and the stylized, eloquent language, though beautiful, was hard for me to sit with, especially given the 90s setting and Nessa’s much more casual speech (which I felt like we heard more of). I also struggled with how the internet is discussed – it felt a little vague at times, especially in regards to the affect the monster has on people once they come across it on the internet. Mostly it just left me a lot of questions (which are not entirely spoiler free, so forgive me) – does the monster bring out the worst in people or does it just make them catatonic zombies (I remember both discussed, but we hear more about the latter)? How does the video sequence after the monster goes wild (which features internet bullying, 4chan, forum comments, Trump and Twitter, etc) work with the 1990s setting and the affects the monster has there? Why am I so frustrated with Nessa’s need for an awesome freshman year – is this because I had a horrible freshman experience and am now totally jaded by people who think college is going to be an awesome party and they’ll make a million friends their first year? (The answer is yes, but I digress).
Clearly it’s not a bad thing I’m having these questions – the show is thought-provoking and I love that I’m thinking about it days after the show. My struggle is that my relationship with the internet is a deeply personal one – I’ve had personal interactions with the dark side (ex: that one time I tried vlogging about fandom and someone who’s blog I foolishly mentioned went on for days about how I was the most horrible of humans and several of her friends told me how I ugly I was and all because I was baffled at why she posted the same photo of Benedict Cumberbatch over and over) and had incredibly good experiences to (I’ve made friends through social media sights, I’ve been able to keep in contact with people through Facebook that wasn’t possible before the page existed, I’ve raised money for Fringe and donated money to help fellow artists out). The internet is personal for all of us. Did it feel this way in 1994? I don’t know (I was four years old. We had a computer but I didn’t use it until I was a little older and that was to play this ridiculous game called Chip’s Challenge that was all about this guy being stuck in a computer club house and he kept getting killed by bugs. Most frustrating thing ever). I think my struggle is summed up in that we’re all coming in to this show with our own personal experience with the internet and technology and there is no earthly way that one show can ever capture all of that. The internet is a public place but because we’re accessing it from a personal place – our dorms, our homes, our phones – it feels intimate. So when something dangerous happens, it feels even more terrifying. We used to able to run away from that danger – if we something frightening in real life, we can run away. When it’s on your cellphone, on your computer, where do you go? You can turn it off, but you’ll still see those words in your mind. This show captures that fear and that’s a powerful thing. My only fear is that some people will walk out of this show feeling justified in condemning people who walk around on their phones and “look like zombies staring at their screens” (which, yes, we shouldn’t be on them all the time but also it’s the only means of staying connected with certain people in my life and I feel like the argument is always posed at millennials being the problem, instead of the fact that I see people of all ages, genders, and ethnicity on their phones. It’s all of us). This isn’t about passing judgement – it’s about recognizing how technology works on us and changes us in the world.
So, to sum up – go see this show. It’s a great place to start in the conversation about the internet. But it doesn’t stop there because this show can’t say everything. We have to share our own experiences and our own stories in order to fight for the good that the internet provides and fight back against the monsters that lurk in the deep (looking at you, Facebook trolls.) Because modern technology isn’t the monster. The monster has always been there and it’s just found a new home.
mONSTER is written by Sam Graber and directed by Meg DiSciorio. It is playing now through October 7th at the Southern Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on the Southern’s website.