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The dangerous and sexy word, “EXPERIMENTAL” is emblazoned across the top of the page of the Carolina Performing Arts program guide describing The Builders Association production of Continuous City. While bold and thoroughly modern in presentation, this is a simple and well-tread story of the most basic of human needs: direct physical and emotional connection. The Builders Association is a New York-based performance and media company that creates original productions based on stories drawn from contemporary life. Carolina Performing Arts was co-producer in this tale of computer technology and how its continuing technological advancement can lead to the degradation of basic human values.
Like many computer applications, Continuous City, in its design, is paradoxically sparse and cluttered, direct and amorphous, obvious and obscure. The stage appears to be just several desks, but that hides the behind-the-scenes complexity that allows this virtuosic display of our modern age of video texting and countless other marvels that barely 20 years ago seemed like science fiction. There are basically two simultaneous stories happening that encompass the two main facets of our lives: work and family. With the help of computers it appears that we can have it all: ‘round-the-world trips, career success, family contact – all with the help of webcams and a variety of digital delights.
Meet Mike Devries. He is the bestselling author of Network Nomads, currently on a worldwide tour as a rainmaker for internet startup company Xubu. On the surface, the play deals with his long distance relationships with J.V., his arrogant and self-absorbed boss, and his wife Deb and 7-year old daughter Sam. While most of the stage is nearly bare, there is an avalanche of visual fireworks from up to 30 screens of all sizes appearing, folding up, moving around and generally bombarding your senses. The title and term “continuous city” not only refers to the fact that with today’s technology you are never really “away” but also the urbanization of our world. Despite landmarks and iconic images all over the world, The Builders Association made the case that we are becoming one interchangeable, vanilla universe. Not an original idea but forcefully presented.
The character of J.V., played by Rizwan Mirza, is a frighteningly familiar amalgam of everything we hate. Duplicitous, manipulative and dismissive, these are some of his best attributes. Technology simply becomes an enabler. How else can you talk to eight girlfriends at once and think you are being sincere? When you speak to someone in Nairobi through a web video connection are you connecting at all? The character of Mike, played by Harry Sinclair (in video only – not on stage) mistakenly thinks so. He deludes himself into thinking that he and his daughter Sam are experiencing a father-daughter relationship through the power of Microsoft. Sam acts out this technological meltdown by using its power to get back at her frustrated mother Deb (Moe Angelos). Even though mother and daughter are in the same room, Sam punishes her mother for her father’s abandonment by only communicating via email and texting. Deb tries to assuage her separateness from her family by, ironically, using technology in a vicious cycle. Her video blog describes her move to, of all places Chapel Hill, and her new vocation of “southern belle in training.” This is not an accident. This company personalizes this aspect of the play and adapts it with voluminous personal references to the community where they are performing.
The idea of encroaching technological advances impinging on our humanness is nothing new and not especially profound. However, this production is remarkably powerful in its take on this one step forward, one step backwards view of our relationships with machines, computers and each other. This may have been the most complex production ever presented at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, yet it hummed along flawlessly and seamlessly. It left us with that most uneasy and unwanted realization: you got what you asked for – now live with it.