One benefit to living in extreme times is the invention of new forms and ways of thinking. You might have easily guessed, for example, what clicking on circlejerk.live would’ve led to in any other year since the dawn of dial-up. But Circle Jerk, a livestream from the theatre and media collective Fake Friends now playing through November 7, is a blissfully chaotic queer fantasia on digital themes that stakes out its very own form, one meme at a time.
Call it Theatre of the Very Online.
Alternatives to in-person theatre, from high-gloss streams of past productions to Zoom-native performances, tend to combine some element of ‘live-ness’ with our everyday screens to present a hybrid substitute. If we can’t be in the same space, they offer a memory of when we could be, or a virtual interface to indicate and bridge the distance.
But Fake Friends recognizes that there is one obvious space many of us share, with its own language, aesthetics, and operating system. The internet not only shapes our culture, but how we conceive of our identities, what we desire, who has influence, and why. It’s not just where we live now, it’s who we are. In Circle Jerk, that means reaction GIFs, TikTok split screens, and Britney Spears’ Instagram Stories serve as shorthand signifiers. Language is meme-ified and the Discourse steeped in hot tea.
The piece is a combination of (mostly) livestream performance from a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and ‘deep fakes,’ or previously recorded clips. Co-writers Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley each play multiple roles, as does Catherine María Rodríguez, who also collaborated on the script (Ariel Sibert serves as dramaturg). It is a self-conscious reflection of its allegiance to being Very Online that Circle Jerk is more a feat of form and discrete content than linear plot or conventional coherence.
But, here goes: A pair of white supremacist gays are plotting world domination from their well-appointed secret lair on “Gayman Island” (how else to spend the off season?). They create an ambiguously raced AI fembot (very Pygmalion of them) to convince straight people to cancel themselves, relocate non-white gays to the Southern Hemisphere (“We’ll call it, umm…Liberation”), and “build a world where White Gays run free and reign supreme.” Unexpected visitors (same actors, different lewks) cause mild commotion, and technical difficulty (imagined, not real) presents the greatest obstacle.
It takes a certain boldness to interrogate the toxicity of one’s own identifying categories, as Breslin and Foley do here with the privileges and hypocrisies tied up with being cis, gay, white men. They relish in absurdities, satirize basic-bitch stereotypes, and gobble up the scenery with supervillain camp. With the help of Ms. Rodríguez, Circle Jerk also pokes fun at the extremities of woke liberal rhetoric that frame self-conception as a revolutionary high art. (“I am a radical. I am a movement! I am my roots! I am Nican Tlaca,” one of her characters says.) Another character’s trans subplot may risk coming off glib, but a brief moment of sincerity breaks through with a bit of truth: “You can claim whatever you need,” another tells them, with regard to pronouns.
Director Rory Pelsue, along with a design and effects team of 10, remix and blend media in a way that synthesizes the moment, the means of transmission, and the current quality of our attention. Bits bounce from one to the next with the sticky slipperiness of an endless scroll (the play runs 105 minutes with two brief intermissions). From sitcom-style scenes on a unit set to iPhone confessions and self-talk, a hyper self-awareness saturates the experience, including occasional Brecht-like glimpses behind the curtain.
It’s almost startling to see crew members in face coverings during these in-between moments, a rare reminder of the conditions that compelled the form. The show otherwise manages to deliver an escape from our current dystopia into one that exists on a not-so-distant plane and inches closer every day. Circle Jerk isn’t a substitute for in-person theatre, or a case for humbly making the best of limitations. It’s a gauntlet and a dare to imagine the future.
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
Photos courtesy of Fake Friends