Tube, a new Van Cougar play running through December 16 at Incubator Arts Project, is as tender, disturbing, hilarious and watchable a piece as you can hope to find in the world of New York independent theater. It’s also made up entirely of YouTube clips.
YouTube clips watched, projected, reenacted, juxtaposed, remixed and replayed in a variety of ways culminate in something that feels as organic and as joyful as the best possible experience of the YouTube party, without the isolation and disconnect that sometimes manifests: suddenly you’re in a room full of people, staring at the backs of their heads staring at a screen. You’ve gone from interaction to consumption. Tube prompts none of that anxiety, partially thanks to center staging and largely because the actors work hard to interact with the audience: eye contact is rampant, as are the choose-your-own adventure portions of the performance, in which audience members are asked what they’d like to see next (or, most brilliantly, whether they’d like to “watch the same video again” – in which case the actors spring back to their original positions and roll out the reenactment from the start, an activity surreal in person but wholly familiar online.
The focal point of the theatre-in-the-round setup at St. Mark’s Church is a stack of televisions of varying sizes, facing all directions, a sort of totem pole around which the five actors rotate, often staring directly into one or more cameras (moved around the space by other actors) as the feed is broadcast, live, to each of the TVs in the stack. It’s fragmented viewing, as you’re compelled to glance from screen to screen, switching between the live-action and live-video views. A multiscreen experience.
The best moments might be tender, broken-hearted covers of Justin Bieber’s Baby (805 million YouTube hits) and Lana Del Ray’s Video Games (30.5 million), presented by Alaina Ferris with heartfelt backup from the actors. An ensemble dance performance of Gangnam Style is less polished (maybe drawing more from the plethora of referential parody videos the original prompted).
Some of the videos (Charlie Bit My Finger, David After Dentist, Tron Guy) are performed once or twice, and are enjoyable whether you’ve seen them on YouTube or not. Others are crafted into effective conjoined pieces, where characters emerge with context and sympathy they’re often denied online. A segment of confessionals (the style of video characterized by individuals speaking into their webcams) brings to life Jessi Slaughter, an 11-year-old girl (here played by a male actor in a wig) who found temporary notoriety after a series of YouTube videos featuring her responding to haters and defending her identity, eventually with the help of her fiercely protective if not quite articulate father (cue launch of memes including “consequences will never be the same” and “cyberpolice”). Watching Jessi’s mannerisms – the pouting, the hair twirling – through the filter of professional acting draws into the light the performance, and performance anxiety, of adolescents forming a digital identity.
The Jessi Slaughter segments are interspersed with the escalating, outsized bravado of Star Wars Kid – played adorably by Lucy Kaminsky – and Black Man Loves Pokemon. All three of the characters raise questions about how in-the-know their performers are about the reactions of their audience, about performance and reality.
There’s also a series of stories (running the gamut from when-I-was-a-kid-I-wanted-to-be-a-superhero to I-had-this-dream-about-vampires) that the actors individually tell with the TVs switched off. It’s unclear where the stories are coming from, but they serve as generic backstories that hint at reminding us that each YouTube noncelebrity carries with them a series of private experiences and inner motivations. Tube expresses real ambivalence about audience and actor, performance and identity.
Tube is play for people who live on the Internet, but will those people go to a play? They should. Tube runs a thematic risk of self-consciousness, but never gets caught in the trap of overthinking it. Mostly, the actors take a joy in the reenactment as simple and pure as the joy we take in watching the videos: losing themselves entirely in the moment, in the details that make this one, like millions before and after it, also great. Wanna watch that again?