By Yijie Zhang
Photos by Nicole Ang
Last month, I caught the annual USProductions performance along with a few friends. It was a set in a cosy little location, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by familiar people while watching familiar people perform.
Moving from the feedback that last year’s play was too esoteric and soporific, this year’s piece explored a theme that was a lot more accessible: the implications of anonymity on the internet.
A Gordian knot was presented – while we increasingly seek virtual companionship in the face of urban isolation, the development of our online relationships are also stunted by the compulsion to protect our privacy lest internet dangers strike. It is a human instinct, I think, to be at once a blade and a shield; to reach out, yet never completely and always with qualifications. But how much must we know about someone for the friendship to be considered “true”? In the face of something as intangible as the internet, we yearn for the concreteness of information.
And yet, the plays conclude with an interesting proposition. Why do we need to know everything about someone for a friendship to be true? We go to these virtual spaces, we share selectively, yet we share deeply and with a vulnerability that may not be possible in everyday life. Compared to some of the more facile real-life relationships we engage in, is this more rewarding? Why must something be tangible and lasting to qualify as true?
The first play, directed by Shien Hian Lim and Tang Rei-En, was titled “Less than Three”. It revolves around the story of Bryan (played by Bryan Ong), a lonely heart who goes to (a rather insidiously named) platform called “Second World” to find companionship – using the online moniker ‘LonelyBryan’ (smooth). Interestingly, the online Avatar ‘LonelyBryan’ was played by a different actor (Liew Zhi Hao), a choice which visually-reinforced the thematic idea that what you see online isn’t necessarily what you get in real life.
LonelyBryan ends up meeting a girl (played by Beatrice Chin) on Second World who is known online by her online nickname ‘Starlight45’ and is rather ambivalent towards him. Infatuated and intent on finding out more about her, he creates a separate – female – avatar (played by Naomi Lourdesamy) to befriend her.
The ethical implications of this are briefly discussed but not exhaustingly pursued such that the play becomes didactic – In fact, the budding attraction as played out onstage by the avatars LonelyBryan and Starlight45 was really quite sweet, and the charismatic performances of the three-person Chorus (Claire Carter, Kurohi Rei, Raag Sudha Sanjay) threatened to steal the show several times.
Bryan eventually takes a leap of faith and confesses, but the Starlight45, shocked, decides to leave the platform and disappears. Without knowing any real information about, Bryan has no way of locating her offline, and was left to nurse a broken heart.
An intermission later, the second play “404 Not Found”, directed by Dorothy So, came on. Mirroring the concluding scene of the first play, a girl – named Robin (Beatrice Chin – again?!) – goes missing after sending out ominous tweets.
This time, she is a member of a tightly-knit band of four online friends consisting of herself, Ree, Li Ting and Anna (played by Movin Nyanasengeran, Rae Teo and Tan Wei Qing respectively) who meet almost daily to play a neopet-like game (“but it’s not the kiddy-kiddy kind – it’s dragons only”) and talk about anything under the sun. The four consider themselves best friends – a belief that was severely tested with the disappearance of Robin.
In fact, as events unfolded, the difficult personal, offline lives of each character played out dramatically onstage, including a trying relationship between Ree and his mother (played by Yui Wei). The friends, and the audience, find out that even the little they thought they knew about each other’s’ offline lives may have been lies propagated by the characters to make them seem “better than they really are”.
With the Robin missing, the friends are forced to confront the implications of this lack of honesty – which leaves them without any accurate information to help them find the girl offline. At the end of the frantic search (aided by a caring but comedic chauffeur-brother played by Cheah Wenjie), a cliff-hanger ending meets the group (and a disbelieving audience). The audience was left to ponder what makes a friendship or relationship real, and whether a relationship can exist even if one does not know the full truth about another.
All in all it was a good night, with strong performances by the members of the cast. The sets were simple but innovatively employed, and the use of the ensemble in the first piece apt. Looking forward to USProductions 2017!