Sermons for stones

Living in Virtual Paradise

Written and Directed by Franka Fiala
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Sts; 212/254-1109)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 23)
Review by Jenny Sandman

With any change in the political situation comes a wave of political theatre. After 9/11 and America's subsequent war on terror, political theatre has enjoyed a new vogue in New York. There can be no war without protesters against that war.

Living in Virtual Paradise purports to follow in that illustrious political vein. It's set in a future utopian city named Paradise, on the planet of Humanita, in some distant galaxy. Everything is just fine and dandy in Paradise until the Leader discovers a plot against Paradise. He won't name the nature of the plot, or a time when it might happen; he will only say that it will be "bad." As a precautionary measure, he tightens security, clamps down on Paradise's borders, and encourages the citizens of Paradise to "stay alert" and "report anything suspicious." This leads to a rash of false arrests. The townspeople are frightened, and miss their basic freedoms, but dare not speak out for fear of being labeled "unpatriotic" and arrested.

Sound familiar? That's the point. Unfortunately, the analogy to America's war on terror is so bald that there is no possible intellectual involvement for the audience. For an audience to stay engaged, there has to be some element of surprise in the play. Living in Virtual Paradise has zero subtlety and complete predictability; the playwright would have been better served by wearing a T-shirt that said, "I Hate George Bush." The play lacks substance and structure and isn't particularly engaging.

There's a large cast of characters (who swiftly overrun the tiny set), including a spacey, wide-eyed woman in white called Subconscious (Dulci Ellenberger), who drifts through the play touching people on the forehead and uttering such truisms as, "Fear and hatred only make things worse." Some of the cast, including Osa Wallender as the Writer/Soldier and Benjamin Marcantoni as the singer with an incredible operatic tenor, were quite good, given the textual limitations. But overall, the acting was overwrought. The weird basement acoustics didn't help.

Writer and director Franka Fiala wisely tried to break up the story with video segments, songs, and newscasts, though it was never explained why a reporter on another planet would speak Spanish. Fiala also chose to intersperse some lovely and creative videography (Horacio Molina) into the story. The computer art, colorful and futuristic, was the best part of the evening. But there were also some German-language segments of a documentary that were shown, in which Austrian citizens were asked for their reaction to the war. Interesting, but largely irrelevant. These didn't add anything to the show.

There aren't enough new American plays that deal with political issues or controversial current events. Otherwise, there isn't anything to recommend Living in Virtual Paradise.

Also with D. Michael Berkowitz, India Brown, Tamara Cupic, Orran Farmer, Fabian Gonzalez, Connie Greco, Dana McDonald, Carol Mennie, Ed Morrone, Clara Ruf-Maldonado, and Jacob Shalov.

  Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman