Living ‘off the grid’ in Uptown
|The New Colony, as part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep Series, presents|
Review by John Olson
“Ripped from the headlines” is a phrase that was used in movie advertising a lot back in the days when films focusing on social issues were most popular. Then, the movies were meant to be educational as well as dramatic – informing audiences of social ills like gang violence and drug addiction – of which they might know little from their everyday life. Well, it’s officially time to revive that phrase, as The New Colony’s reWILDing Genius is certainly “ripped from the headlines” of stories about Edward Snowden’s revelations and Wikileaks. Just like those social dramas of the fifties and sixties, it’s certain to be educational, if not prophetic, about the new world of cyber-terrorism and cyber-activism (which may be the same thing, with your choice of words depending upon your view toward the specific activity in question). In this new play by Andrew Hobgood and Megan Johns, a group of twenty-something cyber-vigilantes holed up anonymously in an Uptown Chicago apartment hatch a scheme to hack into the servers of big pharmaceutical companies. Their goal is to release formulas for life-saving medications that the firms are withholding from the public in favor of producing more profitable drugs.
Educational? You bet. The play details (with the help of an essential in-program glossary) the world and methods of hacking: the secret networks of hackers, the anonymous “Darknet” used for underground Internet activity, “back doors” of network systems that allow access to those who know how to use them. In this era where nearly all information of importance is stored digitally, real-world barriers like locked doors and cabinet drawers in rooms protected by armed security guards can no longer keep information confidential. Any information – whether good (like life-saving pharmaceuticals) or bad (data on nuclear warhead arsenals) can potentially be accessed by those with a certain knowledge of information technology and security processes.
Hobgood and Johns’ play – which was initially developed in residency with The Theater and Performance Studies program at the University of Chicago – follows the formation of a group of cyber-vigilantes who are living off the grid in the Uptown apartment rented by Adam (Will Cavedo). Adam is an IT genius living off the multi-million-dollar proceeds of an algorithm he developed and sold to Yahoo. The residents are a colorful, if only slightly exceptional, collection of socially-conscious twenty-something Bohemians. Ged (Wes Needham) is a dropout from pharmaceutical sales whose relationship with Lily is a business partnership as well. The two operate a website whose users can create and post amateur porn with viewing fees donated to charity (it’s called “altrujizm.com”). Anya (Morgan McNaught) works in a food pantry when she’s not attending protests. An undocumented Chinese woman (Stephanie Shum) who never leaves the apartment and is obsessed with hacking is known simply as “Grandmaster.” When Jonathan (Evan Linder), a “hacktivist” desperado living entirely anonymously arrives to meet online acquaintance Kelly (Caitlin Chuckta) he recruits this makeshift “family” into a plot to acquire and reveal the life-saving drug formulas. There’s something of a climate change message in the script as well. The action takes place sometime “in the not-too distant future,” as the phrase goes, perhaps even in the next 12 months. The story opens in an absurdly hot July and concludes in the cold of winter. Dates, times and temperatures are announced cleverly via the projection of a smartphone weather app-like screen as transitions between scenes.
Hobgood artfully stages the chaotic environment of the seven people sharing this small apartment (with its authentic Uptown look captured by set designer William Boles). Paths cross and dialogue overlaps realistically as Hobgood, his co-writer Johns and cast create and pull us into this environment of renegade intellectuals. The group’s scheme – which grows to involve others in the network of cyber-vigilantes known as “Anonymous” – is successful, but takes a very dark turn which won’t be revealed here. But while the story, characters and performances are engaging , it’s the issues raised that are of the most interest. It’s been acknowledged for some time that privacy is virtually dead in this digital age, and this play posits that so too is secrecy of any kind. With all information stored digitally and potentially available to all, what might be done with that power? Will it bring power to the people or to those who would use it to do harm?
I recently saw the feature film “300:Rise of an Empire”, a fictionalized tale of the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century BC. Wars then were fought with hand-to-hand combat using swords. Might warfare in the near future be commonly waged with cyber-attacks? And, accordingly, might we one day look back at battles fought by drones, let alone land armies, as being as antiquated as the swords and arrows of those ancient wars? Time will tell – and maybe sooner than we think.
reWILDing Genius continues through April 20th at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted (map). Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through Steppenwolf.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheNewColony.org. (Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joel Moorman
Will Cavedo (Adam), Caitlin Chuckta (Kelly), Sarah Gitenstein (Lily), Evan Linder (Jonathan), Morgan McNaught (Anya), Wes Needham (Ged), Stephanie Shum (Grandmaster), Chris Fowler, Liz Sharpe (understudies)
behind the scenes
Andrew Hobgood (director), William Boles (scenic design), Curtis Cassell (costume design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Nick Kawahara (sound design), Jenny Pinson (properties design), Kent Cubbage (projections design), Christopher Chmelik (dialect coach), Geno Franco (production manager), Sara Collange (stage manager), Ben Kaye (assistant director), William Glick (script supervisor), Jesse Roth (dramaturg), Shawn Bowers (video direction and editing, artwork), Wes Needham (video direction), James Nardulli (assistant technical director), Ellie Humphries (assistant lighting designer), Christopher Kristant (technical director), Megan Snowder (master electrican), Andrew Rovner (sound board operator), Joel Moorman (photos)