Phoning It In
Watching Theater in Second Life
This much, at least, is true: I have never been so comfortable watching a play. Last Friday night, I attended a performance of Oxymoronic Fusion by Z. Sharon Glantz while sitting on my own couch in my own apartment. And I'm listening to it again as I type out this review at my desk. The play was performed live in Second Life, with viewing portals at www.thesanitypatrol.com/theater/.htm for people (like me) without a Second Life account. Oxymoronic Fusion was also displayed on a screen on Sunday, April 11, at Open Circle Theater for audience members who stubbornly insist on watching their plays in meatspace. Though the limited run is over, cached versions of the play are available for free at the web address above.
Some say home entertainment is killing live performance, but theater companies abound in the virtual world: One has devoted itself to performing all of Shakespeare's plays in Second Life, another makes plays by and for furries, and guerrilla art groups stage performance-art events that vary from monologues in nonexistent alien languages to surprise performances with unwilling audience participation from digital passersby.
Oxymoronic Fusion is a more traditional play, a metaphysical drama in which people gather, mostly in groups of two, to discuss reincarnation, godhood, space travel, magical Kleenex, and an elusive, powerful woman named Cleopotha who binds everyone together in a tangle of deceit and sexual manipulation. Characters include a lecherous psychologist named Dr. Doctor (Kayden Oconnell), a celibate lawyer (Ada Radius), a witch (Persephone Phoenix), a dummy, and an enormous letter Y with googly eyes that represents an unborn child (both played by Crap Mariner). Despite all the metaphysical hoo-ha, the script has a fairly standard construction, with characters meeting to talk about other characters and a party at the end to get everyone in the same room at the same time.
While making a play in Second Life doesn't require the use of physical resources, the medium has its limitations: It feels more like a mashup between a puppet show and a radio play than real, fleshy theater. The virtual actors are blocky and clumsy, capable of only a few distinct actions or facial expressions. They don't interact; they just occupy space next to each other (when one character tries to lounge in another's lap, their pixels just intermingle as though they were ghosts). And the actors are phoning it in, literally—from Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington, and as far away as Australia.
The cast of Oxymoronic Fusion is mostly made up of seasoned Second Life theater performers, hailing from troupes such as the Act Up Theatre Company and Avatar Repertory Theatre. They clearly enjoy the extra layer of obfuscation between their roles and themselves (I'm fairly certain that "Crap Mariner" isn't on anyone's birth certificate). Each actor is playing an avatar who is playing a role that is only the latest in a series of roles, leaving behind a real history of fictional personalities for a fictional character performed by a real person.
But the performances lack that intriguing metacomplexity. I got tired of watching the stolid mannequins bump into each other ("Hold me!" someone says to someone else, and the characters sort of hover next to each other in what passes for intimacy), so I minimized the browser window and just listened to the actors for a while without the distraction of their clunky avatars.
This only made things worse.
The voice acting in Oxymoronic Fusion is subpar. Leaving aside the distracting buzz of a few actors' headset phones or their clicking at keyboards and mice to control their on-screen personas, most of the dialogue (especially Rowan Shamroy's Madame X) sounds less like a conversation than a series of actors waiting to read their lines. (Although some of the blame falls on writer/director Glantz's clichéd script: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss—yippie-skippie doo.")
The technology of Second Life is leveraged to good effect with the sets: Dr. Doctor's office is furnished with a giant banana for the doctor to perch on and a broken egg instead of a couch for his patients. Other production elements, especially the manifestation of different personalities in one body, are well served by the digital universe. Its theatrical possibilities are vast: Imagine a play where the set itself is a character; or a play that takes place on five levels of an apartment building with audience members floating around wherever they choose; or a simultaneous production of every Shakespeare play ever written, on a single island, with actors improvising and creating new stories as the plays interact in a closed system. I would join Second Life just to watch such mind-boggling theatrical experiments.
Unfortunately, Oxymoronic Fusion wasn't up to the task. It hints at greater possibilities for Second Life as a hypersexual, identity-shifting puppet theater, but it couldn't overcome its pedestrian script. Instead of a giant leap toward the future, Oxymoronic Fusion just felt like digitized community-theater with its dime-store philosophy, club-wielding sexual politics, and hambone acting. But this brave new world of Community Theater 2.0 has its advantages—I didn't have to put on my pants to check out the show.