Just turn off your cellphone

Advice for people going to see Headspace: you should probably turn off your cell-phones. If it goes off, neither the actors nor the audience will bother to mock you; the script does that for them. Playwright Mike Bell portrays current technology-shaped realities with the kind of devastating insight that only an outsider can have. The main plot-line focuses on Mark (Kevin Ramberran), a technophobe whose girlfriend Twila (Jaclyn Anne Kozak) “persuades” him to join a social networking site, named Headspace.. Even when the story shifts into dark territory, the play conveys a certain irreverent delight in the Internet’s more absurd qualities without descending into a host of trite generalizations.

As dramaturge Bill Kerr explains, “The play’s structure functions in the way technology does”; these stylistic experiments are, on the whole, extremely successful. The storyline jumps around between scenes, but remains easy to follow (kudos to the production team for seamlessly handling a staggering number of transitions). One scene that stands out involves an actress (Shauna Wiens) who uses her webcam gig as an opportunity to perform excerpts from Chekhov. Another involves a Dr. Brain character (William Jordan) who pops up intermittently to postulate on scientific facts. The script also draws attention to the importance this generation places on specificity: characters perpetually search for the appropriate word or categorization for everything — perhaps an internal response to the Information Age?

In the words of director Chris Johnson, “One of the things the play is is a celebration of geekiness” and Headspace features some characterizations that are uncomfortably dead-on. Twila, the vegetarian-who-likes-salami, manga-loving, bisexual technophile is particularly brilliant and instantly recognizable to anyone under the age of 35. Her 11-year old blog posts and Second Life sequences are priceless, if only because they convey a very contemporary blend of self-righteousness and vulnerability. In contrast, conspiracy theorist Jerod (Akalu Meekis) refuses to use any technology of the last 10 years, leaving one to wonder whether his technophobia isn’t more about personal antagonism rather than any legitimate problem with the stuff. Even some of the campier characters, like secret operative Sur (Tim Bandfield) and his secretary Gwen (Julia Florek) rang true as contemporary humour, if not, strictly-speaking, as realistic characters. Sur’s line, “Just because we’re having a secret torrid affair doesn’t mean you get to call me by my first name,” could easily have come out of a web comic.

As a new play, it will be interesting to see how Headspace develops if taken to new environments. The hyperlink structure was effective but it could have used some work in terms of stress placed on key scenes — although it did hit its stride by the second act. I wonder if the show could have benefited from an outside eye in development, if only because the scenes that could have been cut were generally ones featuring strong performers that didn’t bring anything new to the show.

That said, there’s undeniably an energy to this production that can only come from something that is an original. The true measure of its success can be seen in how tangibly the audience connected to this script. By the end, you’re left wondering — like payphone inventor William Gray (Robert Homer) — whether the disorientating effect of adjusting to new technologies is specific to the present day. For all the portrayals of social awkwardness, Headspace seems to suggest that technology only changes the most superficial aspects of relationships — in the end we, like the characters, are left puzzling over the same human vulnerabilities that have always been at hand.

Headspace runs until March 20 at The Black Hole Theatre on campus.