Kelsey at Desk.jpg
Source: Swandive Theatre; photo by Dan Norman

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.

Review: Kid Simple


If there’s one thing I’d like to say about Swandive Theatre’s production of Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh is that this show is my jam. It’s relatively rare for me to see a show where I wish I’d created it, been in it, and worked in the development of it all at once. But for Kid Simple, this was how I felt and then some.

You should know that I love radio plays. Last winter, I got to see Shades Brigade, a locally produced live radio play at Bryant Lake Bowl (if you were at the Iveys last year, you might remember seeing an excerpt from one of their shows). The way sound effects, melodrama, and humor work in these pieces is something that I aesthetically and creatively love. So to see a full-fledged 90 minute production that incorporates this into homage to sound design was a dream.

Here’s the premise: the Narrator (described as “a mellifluous voice” and played by Debra Berger) describes how the brilliant inventor Moll (Boo Segersin) listens to a weekly radio drama called “Death and the Music Teacher” with her parents (Sarah Broude and Kevin McLaughlin, who also provide the voices of the characters in the radio drama). In her spare time, Moll invents things, putting her focus into a grand science fair project of a machine that produces sounds that cannot be heard. Including a bit of herself – her stirrup, one of the tiny bones in her ear – into the machine, called the Third Ear (Derek Trost), she gives the machine life and allows listeners to hear sounds that objects collect as people pass by them. However, her machine grows attention from sinister figures, including one known as the Mercenary (Kip Dooley), who wants to steal the Third Ear. A master of disguise, the Mercenary takes on the persona of a boy known as Garth to seduce Moll and steal her machine. Vowing revenge for her broken heart and to save the Third Ear from falling into evil hands, Moll recruits the virgin Oliver (Nathan Gebhard) to be her guide through the wilderness to find the Third Ear.

Playing with themes of Apollonian versus Dionysian creativity (organized methodology vs. artistic mess), the tension between love and lust, how we perceive and interact with sound, how we connect with our world, and what it takes to create something and change the world, there’s a lot going on in this 9o minute show. Presented as a radio play, Kid Simple experiments with storytelling and how we follow the events of a show, interrupting the main story to introduce excerpts of “Death and the Music Teacher,” the radio play with in the play that eventually crosses over into Moll’s story line. As events unfold, words begin to be replaced by sounds as the Third Ear is used more and more, distorting usual ways of hearing and communicating. The narrator breaks the fourth wall, coming out into the audience to find her importance and to discern how she should continue to vocalize this story.

Overall, this play is a dynamic devotion to sound. Influenced by the 2014 decision of the Tony’s governing body to remove Sound Design as an award category, Swandive’s production effectively proves why this was a poor choice. The artistry, technicality, and beauty of sound design is abundantly clear, putting heavy emphasis on precision and timing. The Third Ear, a steampunky machine of found objects that is run by Derek Trost (who is also the sound designer), includes musical instruments such as a harp, a cymbal, a zither, a metronome that plays at the top of the show, ticking away like a clock to the beginning of the play, and other handheld objects used to produce sound effects (ala radio show). The effects blend with other sounds produced by the sound board as well as some superb voice acting by the cast. Visual projections not only add to the set design but also describe some of the sounds being heard as well as describing sounds that are never heard, allowing the audience to imagine the sounds themselves. Found sound of audio clips and recordings as well as musical excerpts are also included, involving every kind of sound design that you could expect to find in a show.

This show is so satisfying for the ears. Using beautiful, clever dialogue, carefully planned words, and even invented words (“spookening” and “fuckiteer of the forest” happen to be my favorite) speech also becomes a part of the soundscape. There are moments where the show almost feels overwhelming with sound but in its exploration and creation, it  becomes magical and incredible, playing off of the mythological and fairy tale feel of the play. I don’t think I’ve left a play feeling my ears tingling by how much I listened, but in this show I certainly did. Even visually the show works to reference sound – lights aid in the description of certain noises and effects and the set includes panels with newsprint and spiraling pieces hanging from the ceiling reminiscent of sound waves.

There’s so much for me to love about this – the story of a female inventor, the homage to sound, all the theatrical risks it takes without ever for a moment being snobby or trying too hard to be clever. This is one of the best works I’ve seen all year and it does exactly what I want theater to do – to engage the audience, to challenge what they’re used to seeing, and to tell a smart, heartfelt story that’s beautiful, striking, smooth, and messy all at once. It’s so inspiring as an artist to see this sort of storytelling and I’m grateful to Swandive for producing it. I’m adding this to my list of dream shows to work on and this is a production you absolutely cannot miss.

Kid Simple written by Jordan Harrison and directed Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals. It is playing in rep at the Southern Theater through May 22nd. For show information and ticket prices, check out Swandive’s website or the Southern’s website.