Washington Ensemble Theatre's west coast premiere of Tim Price's Teh Internet Is Serious Business, which runs at 12th Ave Arts through October 2nd, could have been good if it weren't so stagey about the whole thing.
If you don't know anything about the story of LulzSec, the hacker group at the center of Price's play, you should know it's sort of like Ocean's 11 but with basement dwellers who spend their lives on the internet. A group of young men from the UK and the US (age range 16 to 28), some of whom worked with Anonymous, combined their powers in 2011 and hacked a bunch of companies—Fox, Sony, and a number of cyber security firms—to reveal the cracks in their cyber infrastructure and to get a good laugh out of totally pwning Authority. Their specialties included launching a lot of denial of service attacks using hacked computers to briefly take down websites (aka "DDoS" attacks), dumping tons of stolen e-mails on the internet, and engaging in clever acts of "social engineering," which just means conning people irl. Eventually, the FBI tracked down the leader and used him to trick other members of LulzSec into transforming themselves from glorified shitposters into the danger trolls the government wanted them to be. Though, to be fair to the FBI, LulzSec did release a lot of private info that other hackers used to commit fraud and ruin lives—so they were kinda beastly.
The implied complexity and depth of this story about a bunch of idiot kids on the internet is fascinating, but because of Wayne Rawley's direction, I left the theater wondering why it needed to be a play.
In the opening scene, the ensemble performs a clumsy Backstreet Boys dance number in neon-colored hoodies while that already-ear-splitting Fall Out Boy song, "Centuries," blares at ear-splitting volume. The hacker-dude-Amazon-fantasy-live-action-music-video thing shows off the awesome, Tron-like qualities of Tristan Roberson's fantastic set, but the tone-setting intro was so cheeseball and self-serious I couldn't help but roll my eyes.
After that "moment," we get a poorly paced and medium-funny first half that provides an impressionistic diorama of life on 4chan, the forum that serves as a kind of vestibule to the dark parts of the internet. Members of the ensemble give voice and body to memes such as Grumpy Cat and Socially Awkward Penguin as they explain the anarchic rules of the internet. Along the way they note the birth of Anonymous, which in turn gave rise to LulzSec.
The ADD-like storytelling, which is justifiable given the subject of the play but which isn't executed sharply by the company, settles down in the second half, and from thereon out we follow a pretty straightforward narrative about the birth and death of Lulzsec. The star of this act is a quiet schoolboy named Mustafa (Jeffrey Azevedo), a 15-year-old prodigy programer who is "just bored in school" and who "just wants to learn" how to be a dick on the internet.
Throughout, to dramatize the act of hacking, the actors approach lit-up squares onstage and pantomime the act of taping up an invisible cardboard box while shouting programming language: "Forward slash forward slash, angle bracket, quotation," etc. I was happily spared the cliched sight of an actor furiously typing out computer code in his underwear, and I understand the impulse to emphasize the "craft" element of programming, but the choreography infantilized the act rather than elevating it. And it just happened a lot.
Not all the stagey elements were mediocre, though. To represent the DDoS attacks, the cast shoots off a lot of Nerf guns at onstage targets. The Nerf gun is the perfect symbol for this sort of attack: it looks big and cartoonishly bad, but the pain is minor without detracting from the high levels of public humiliation. The only real dramatic intensity I felt during this play involved the scene where everyone shoots a human stand-in for Scientology, a religious cult that Anonymous banned from the internet for some time. In that moment, the thrill of watching an organization receive what I thought was their rightful mobbing filled me with a sort of lustful rage you feel when the vigilantes are on your side. It's such a good representation of the fucked up psychology of shaming someone out of existence.
And don't get me wrong: the story Price tells in Teh Internet wants to be a play. It's about the paper thin wall between fantasy and reality, the perils of isolation and the power of art ("social engineering," for instance, is just acting), all of which theater does really well. Plus, the Wikipedia page about the group is really boring, as are all the readily available articles about and interviews its members.
Considering the tragedy of Charlottesville, Facebook's Russian fuckery, Google's sexist bullshit, Trump's trollish reign, and considering the strong presence of the "local" "tech" "community" right here in Seattle, the time is right to talk about the differences—or more importantly the lack of differences—between life in "cyberspace" and "meatspace," and also about the way internet forums concentrate misogyny and loneliness into a toxic gas that fuels violence. Those elements were apparent but under-examined in the clunky theatrical treatment of this story.