By Bob Shuman
Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, Predictions Past Present and Future, is an evening of five short plays by Robert Patrick, now in a run at La MaMa’s Downstairs (66 E. 4 St. , NYC). In the early 1990s, Patrick moved to Los Angeles–you’ll get glimpses of Hollywood screenwriting in the first segment on the current program—but downtown New Yorkers will remember him for numerous works, including the internationally acclaimed Kennedy’s Children in 1974, My Cup Ranneth Over (for Marlo Thomas) in 1976, T-Shirts in 1979, starring the adult-rated film star Jack Wrangler, Blue Is for Boys, and The Trial of Socrates. They’ll also acknowledge him as out, in the era before AIDs and in it, and, as such, he is part of the vanguard of twentieth century gay playwrights.
Whether or not Patrick believed that being homosexual would become accepted in the U.S. during his New York writing career—or whether he thinks it has–we do see a call for humanity in “All in the Mind” (1981), probably Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi’ s central piece, a work of science fiction on the subject of telepathy (the show is directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco, in association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts). Despite the use of hard technology, huge live-action flat screen video monitors, and strobe lights, the section—followed by “Simultaneous Transmissions,” a brief play about war–speaks of other values, amid today’s corporate insatiability. Patrick’s messaging shows how hopeful the era really was and may remind of the Oscar Hammerstein of “A Hundred Million Miracles,” as well as mid-century sentiments like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or “We’re all connected.” Focusing on a baby becoming enmeshed in a natural worldwide Web, this one-act, without the technology, may have been of more interest to those in the twentieth century rather than people now.
Then, the idea of one world, one mind, was sound idealism, supported by the human potential movement: “every birth is your birth.” On a larger, political stage during the time, “precognition” was being studied by the American government, as tensions and competitiveness with the Soviet Union escalated during the Cold War. Coincidentally, one of the pre-eminent researchers on the subject, Ingo Swan, lived up the street from La MaMa (he also absconded to California, but returned, and continued working as a writer, sometimes in science fiction, too, and as a painter, often of gay themes (La MaMa exhibited his work last fall). Today, the government program he helped create has been rebuffed, despite the fact that it warranted funding from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and was part of 26,000 missions. That was part of how investigators saw the potential of the human mind, during the era. Today, analogous spy programs may be the NSA—and the human potential movement is probably dead.
People think in terms of the potential of machines, not humans, now. Workers think about how much longer their job will last until it is taken over by robots. No one talks much about the fact that most of the tasks that they do are accompanied by machines. This is why Patrick’s most accessible piece, “Camera Obscura,” in Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, is about human love and a machine that hasn’t been perfected—the huge video screens work with delayed reception, as if the characters are talking to someone on Facetime.
One way to describe the production, as a whole, is to talk about the emphasis on flow and evolution of ideas, as in Beckett monologues, rather than in terms of plots. Theatregoers might also call the work a gathering, instead of a “ticket”—we view the scenes in the way one might come to theatre if it weren’t so expensive and if there weren’t so many other entertainment opportunities. Most of the audience is standing up most of the time, and move through three rooms. After an experiment like this, one feels more creative and human. Like humans, too, plays breathe, unlike drones and rigidly well-made dramas. Technology, as conceptualized by Erwin Piscator, is an asset to the stage—but let’s stop producers before casts are replaced by digital actors. Much better to see Robert Patrick himself, with a twinkle in his eye, watching the performance among us and singing a ditty, as he does as a finale. Despite the pony-tailed hipster behind glasses in this show, mesmerized by virtual reality, theatre constantly reminds us that we are in one—probably a last outpost and enclosure where we can, among others, still judge for ourselves.
Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi
Predictions Past Present and Future
In association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts
Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco
The cast includes John Guttieriez, Yeena Sung and downtown veterans Valois Mikens and Agosto Machado.
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