Arts & Culture

Senior thesis play merges virtual and personal

Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2012

“If the results of the video game don’t work, you can reset it, but the moral dilemma is, ‘Can you do that in real life?'” asks protagonist Peter Hayes in “The Reality Effect,” an original play by Michelle Meyers ’12 that continues its run in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts tonight and Saturday.

In the play, altruistic software engineer Peter (Michael Chiboucas ’13) is forced to reexamine how far the virtual world can – and should – go to create a new reality after his wife, Isabella (Natalie McDonald ’15), suddenly dies after being hit by a car.

Unable to tell his daughter, he recruits down-on-her-luck actress Natalia (also McDonald) to play Isabella. With the encouragement of Natalia and his partner Liam (Russyan Mark Mabeza ’15), Peter’s initially well-intentioned manipulation grows into the company SimuLife, which recruits starving actresses and broken widowers who yearn for rent money and replacement wives, respectively. Controversy arises over whether these new realities destroy or enliven the participants – something Natalia and Peter must come to grips with themselves.

“I have always been really interested in technology and the idea of reality ­­- what it means for something to be real versus unreal,” said Meyers, who wrote the play for her senior thesis in theater arts and performance studies.

The fact that the widowers order wives within weeks is a testament to the instantaneous nature of the tech-savvy world.

The show incorporates technology in a seamless way to add a persuasive new dimension. In several scenes, the actors move in time with projections of themselves to create the appearance of virtual reality.

“I think that this play needs technology, that it embraces technology,” Meyers said. “It’s not a gimmick or a directorial vision but is embedded into the story itself.”

Lizzy Callas ’15, the show’s sound designer, worked with Ben Kutner ’14, a Herald contributing writer, on an original score that strangely invokes a silent film but perfectly matches the moods of the scenes.

“I really like doing cathartic sound design to capture the meaning of the script,” Callas said.

The confined space of the Englander Studio allows the audience to feel intimate with the actors, whose facial expressions and gestures portray just as much as their words. Casting a bluish tint, the lighting adds to the technological feel of the play, though the lighting transitions appear ill-fitting for the passage of time portrayed to the audience.

Liam, played in an outstanding performance by Mabeza, counters Peter’s seriousness with a levity that genuinely evokes laughter. Instead of being a cheap foil to lighten the play, Liam shows depth, revealing darker facets brought on by his own willingness to blur the lines between the virtual and corporeal.

A series of convenient plot twists attempts to give Natalia depth, but the stage time would have been better spent showing more of Peter’s emotional development. Instead, his growth is left off-stage, though as a single father and idealist his struggle to maintain his morality is complex and compelling.

Though the character of Natalia shows promise for growth as she attempts to fill Isabella’s role, she quickly regresses into a somewhat manipulative, flat character. The scene where she practices saying “I love you, Peter” in the mirror by watching a home video of Isabella hints at desperation and complexity, but any additional development is lost in a wavering delivery. McDonald’s performance lacks the jaded maturity the character’s story demands.

“At its core, it’s a love story about trying to revive the past and recover it. There is an inherent desire to return to the past,” said director Zachery Rufa ’14.

While the love story and morality play in “The Reality Effect” sometimes feel weakly developed, the play effectively examines the dangers of technology shaping and creating a new reality. This virtual world can brush over darker aspects of the original, often resulting in fatal consequences.

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