People You May Know
January 16 – February 2, 2013
Big Secret Theatre
Listen to my review of People You May Know on CBC’s Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/01/17/people-you-may-know/
Hands up those of you who have seen a recent play that hasn’t used some kind of multimedia, tech–wizardry to jazz up the production and bring a conception of “cool” to the show. Ok, so not every production does it, but more often than not we are being bombarded with theatre that relies on avant-garde tricks through the use of film, video or graphic projection to, at worst, compensate for a weak narrative or more satisfying to add relevant punctuation to an otherwise interesting story. I often imagine the pre-production meetings as going something like this….”Well the story’s fine and everything but we need a huge video wall that can show the real-time digestive tract of each character so that we can really KNOW how they are feeling.” Frankly, I’m getting bored with the whole thing.
So it was with great hesitation that I approached One Yellow Rabbit’s offering at the year’s High Performance Rodeo. People You May Know is not just a show that uses technology to enhance the production, in this play the technology is the production.
The gimmick here is a digital puppet show where the actors create their characters using the Photo Booth technology found on computers. This facial-morphing application allows one to play around with a photo, or in the case of the show, a live stream image, to make all sorts of comical modifications such as huge eyes, tiny head, massive teeth, bulbous nose etc. With this tool in hand, the actors sit on stage, each at a desk with their own laptop, and project their characters above them on a big screen as the story unfolds. Only three actors on the stage but with this technology they have the ability to play a multitude of characters, 7 in total, by just changing the look of their digital face.
Happily, the visual gag turned out to be a unique and compelling way to tell a story and gave a tremendously modern feel to the whole production. It was a shame then that the story the Rabbits chose to tell was such an outdated tale. Ever since the Bernie Madoff scandal in 2009, Ponzi scheme narratives have been addressed by everyone from Hollywood studios to HBO to Network television shows. Point being that by the time Law and Order dedicates an episode to the subject (2010) you know the idea is passé.
The only twist to the well-worn story here is that People You May Know sets the financial ruin inside an RV dealership. Bill and Pat are the owners of the business and one day they sell a $200k RV to a seemingly wealthy German man named Ulf who impresses them both when he pays cash on the spot. While Pat is closing the deal, Ulf lets it slip that he is part of an exclusive investors club that’s sitting on a mother-load of cash from a gold mine they own. Money-hungry Pat immediately wants in on the deal but Ulf turns her down saying that he’s already full on investors with a long waiting list to get involved. And nothing puts Pat’s greed into overdrive like rejection. She hounds him relentlessly until eventually Ulf and his partner Cyril let her in on their gold mine. In fact not only do they let her in on the deal – but they encourage her to invite Bill and all her staff to invest as well at a whopping 12% return. With figures like that, who could say no? Everyone at the dealership maxes out their savings takes out mortgages on their homes and does all sorts of risky financial things in an attempt to benefit from this get rich quick scheme.
Everyone that is except Frances, the accountant, who senses that something just isn’t right but is ignored by an office full of people drunk on the promise of easy money. No big surprise what happens next and here the Rabbits do nothing out of the ordinary but show you the first realizations of a lives in financial ruin. What starts out as a very funny sketch comedy type play follows a predictable path toward the final tragedy of the cautionary tale genre.
But back to the technology. There is no doubt that Photo Booth creates some hilariously designed characters and this itself is a great source of laughter throughout the show. But the real test of the actors is how they transcend the easy visual humour to create characters personalities that you can relate to and care about. And here is where the play has great success. Denise Clark, Andy Curtis and David Rhymer each play several parts and as each actor unfurls their characters to the audience, the strangeness of their look fades away and they become personalities you recognize and attach feelings to as you gaze into their big emoting faces. Perhaps none more than Clarke’s naïve, sweet trailer-trashy secretary named JamieLynn who kept me laughing even when I saw her jokes coming and Curtis’ Bolton, the dim-witted but earnest salesman who broke my heart with his unravelling. The technology may have brought the visual representations of these characters to life, but it was the sharp writing and excellent performances that kept us attached to them.
However, like every case where technology is employed in the theatre, things can go wrong and break the spell. As with any puppet show, it does take a while to grow accustomed to the performance method. So sure at first you watch both the performers sitting at the computer screens talking and at the projections they are creating. But I was surprised at how fast I locked into the projections, ignored the real actors and quickly dismissed the fact that this play lacked any sort of props or setting or physical interaction between the characters. So it was especially jarring when the tech issues reared. Thankfully they were short-lived and only broke the magic for a minute of two. More problematic for me was Curtis’ difficulty maintaining consistency with his character’s look and the sound synching issue. Much of the look of each character is accomplished by tilting the computer screen at a certain angle to achieve a specific warped image. While the other actors seemed to have their settings down perfectly, Curtis often gave us incorrect looking versions of his characters or at times simply a fuzzy image of himself. The bigger issue however was the sound. The dialogue and the images were about half a second off and if you’ve ever watched ill-synched over-dubbed movies you know how annoying this can be. I have no idea if this issue is a natural outgrowth of using Photo Booth or if it was simply a problem at last night’s performance, but it’s most definitely something that has to be fixed if this show is going to have legs.
All things considered, People You May Know is both a very of the moment play as well as a retread effort. Of the moment because the play successfully stretches the boundaries of technology in theatre and retread due to the old and tired plotline that really should have been edited by about 15 minutes to get rid of some tedious bits in the flow. But with well written dialogue and wonderfully funny and unique performances, I could forgive the story, enjoy the experience and appreciate the effort of a creative company pushing ideas and giving us something new to enjoy.
For the guys and the girls – With wonderful characters that may seem familiar to you on some level you will laugh at them until there is nothing to laugh about anymore. Yes, there are no surprises in the story, but it’s done well enough for it not to matter all that much. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The comedy of the show just might help you get over the non-traditional process of the production. It’s a lot less “out there” than you think. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Forget being wowed by the story. Ain’t gonna happen. Instead focus on the talent and technique and see something you probably haven’t’ seen done before. SEE IT