Dallas — In its sixth season, Cry Havoc Theater Company continues to create new and challenging work by — but not necessarily only for — youth. Working through a process of collective creation generally known as devised theater, each production begins with a kernel of an idea and then grows through hours of improvisation by the ensemble.
The job of assembling it falls upon director/conceiver Shelby-Allison Hibbs who, in the talkback on opening night, shared that the premise for 20/20 Vision began with the novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The first show of this season is a complex commentary on the use, abuse and reliance upon social media to provide presence. Is presence online equivalent to having a real life — with face-to-face humans? How does mediated presence falsify our own sense of self and the perception we project onto others via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.? Does that make us feel less lonely and more connected?
During the first 15 minutes of the pre-show be ready to use your cellphones and your Instagram account — everybody has one, right? Rather than being instructed to put our cellphones away, we were invited to post, post, post. While this initial frenzy effectively worked up a buzz, it left some “old timers” (read: audience members over 50) in the dust, feeling a bit grumbly and left out. The use of our cellphones was not important for the remainder of the show. (I don’t have an Instagram or Twitter account; it’s tough enough keeping up with Facebook.)
After getting over the initial wave of high-energy, and lots of technology everywhere, the plot begins with Ally (Brooked Schlegel), who is reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Ally gets swept into a whirlwind through a cellphone-sized piece of glass: the looking-glass. That lands her in various apps. At one point she is even accused of being a ’bot.
There are numerous, fast-paced adventures in this 70-minute intermissionless play. There are simulations everywhere. There is a Mr. White (Rodrigo Fuentes) who seems to be running the apps, until something unpredictably goes haywire. This segment was reminiscent of Undermain Theatre’s production of Gordon Dahlquist’s dystopic, futuristic Red Chariot, whereby some glitch in the system provokes unexpected consequences for human beings.
Keeping with the Lewis Carroll inspiration, there is cat named Cheshie (Emma Myers) whose role is to (mis?) guide Ally; and an unforgettably funny feud between the Queen (Willie Lefall) and the Duchess (Sophia Lopez). And, of course there has to be a Mad E Hacker (Zoe Williams). It’s OK if you don’t follow every bit of the action — eventually it all makes sense.
The set at the South Dallas Cultural Center’s black box space is perfect for this interactive piece in which the actors swirl in and out among the audience. Two long tables full of electronic equipment flank the set, with a third, smaller one off set. There are monitors, little lights, cellphones, and closed wired transmissions everywhere.
Nearly every moment of this play is mediated by some sort of electronic interaction/interference. The teen company brings a keen awareness of how unreal that world can be, and the tricks used to manufacture “realities.”
As in Carroll's book, Alice/Ally wants out of the maze. But while that may have been possible in previous centuries, this play questions that possibility in the year 2020. 20/20 intriguingly uses and exposes the allure of creating one’s online persona. How much of what we post is really us? How much is tailor-made to portray a successful, happy personality(vs. person) — one that garners a gazillion followers or likes. And yet, living without it seems no longer possible. The play makes no judgements either way. It presents us with a youthful, self-aware version of what is.
Jamie Adams creates a wardrobe that is refreshingly un-costume-like. The clothing is ingeniously as transparent as the looking-glass itself. Adding to the digital-world effects are Jason Monmaney’s lighting and Marco E. Salinas’ sound design. The actors manage various kinds of technology, which they learned as they journeyed into this wonderland in just 12 days of rehearsal.
20/20 Vision is adequate for all ages. Go see it — there is nothing else like it in North Texas.
Producer Mara Richards-Bim states that for “Each 60 seconds the audience sees onstage in the final performance takes roughly 60minutes to create. In devised theater, a lot of really great ideas get worked and reworked only to be discarded hours or days later. The process is tedious and time-consuming.” She highlights the uniqueness of their process by stating that “there are only a handful of youth theater companies in the United States that solely produce devised work.”
She also announced an exciting new program. Cry Havoc Theater Company is launching a free Teen Critics Program, and, full disclosure, they’re partnering with TheaterJones. They’re looking for 20 Dallas high school students to experience cultural offerings (theatre, dance, music, and visual art) and review the work, as well as attend master classes. The six-month program runs Jan. 27-July 20; look for more on the program coming on TheaterJones. Additionally, we will run some of the teens’ reviews in a special section on our website.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). Her Spanish-language play, La Familia, is published in Teatro Latino: Nuevas Obras de los Estados Unidos (2019, available on Amazon). She is working on her third play, Second-Hand Conversations with Irene, which pays homage to two women with dementia.