Destroying Our Reality, Confronting the Virtual

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Photo by Carol Rosegg

I’ve never before experienced a theatrical production that resembles Ludic Proxy, which recently completed its run produced by The Play Company. Written and directed by Aya Ogawa, the play intertwines three different stories about how humans experience nuclear disasters and their permanent repercussions. The three stories are scarily relevant as separate pieces, but when presented alongside each other and intertwined, they collectively paint a grim and necessary picture of how we cause and respond to disasters.

The first act melds past and present experiences with Chernobyl, the 1986 Ukrainian disaster that left a once thriving town empty and dilapidated. Nina, who experienced the disaster firsthand, finds the past startlingly present when her niece and nephew bring home a video game inspired by the event. As they show her the game, the house she grew up in is suddenly there again before her eyes, waiting for her to explore it virtually. Although she spent the years since the trauma attempting to create a new, better reality, the virtual recreation (and her family’s lackadaisical understanding of the true horrors that inspired it) make it impossible for her exist in any other world besides the one she experienced; the virtual reality forces her back into her true reality.

I never experienced Chernobyl and I have only heard of the disaster in a basic academic sense, and yet my own physical world was affected by the events in ways that are tangible but invisible. We are even able to commodify disasters, turning true catastrophes into epic films and video games. While this may be cathartic to some, it also has the questionable effect of cheapening the often incredibly grim realities. How often do we remember that for certain people, the results of these disasters are not fun virtual spectacles but actually a chaotic and life-altering experience?

The second act unfolds in Fukushima, Japan, amidst the tumultuous fallout of another nuclear disaster. Unlike the first act, where the characters more conventionally revealed the story to us, this story gave the audience control over the outcome in a “choose your own adventure” style. Options were presented every time the protagonist, Maho, had to make a decision; audience members raised numbered paddles to cast their vote for which option they wanted, and a company member would tally the votes to determine what Maho would do. As Maho worked relentlessly to convince her sister Maki to leave the aftermath in Fukushima, we had to choose which strategies she should employ and hope that they would be successful.

The incorporation of audience participation via vote led to a heightened investment in the outcome of the action on stage: a feeling of victory when your choice won the vote, and a sharp disappointment when the other option was victorious. I was amazed at how the responsibility of deciding how Maho will act and react transformed my investment in her journey. I could sense the entire audience evolve from a group of spectators into a collective puppeteer. That we were engaging with the circumstances of the story through an avatar also affected how I experienced the conflict of a nuclear catastrophe: instead of observing how Maho responded to the event and deciding within the confines of my imagination if I would make that same decision, I was a part of her deciding instincts and helping to make the story for her.

The third act took us into the future, where the lasting effects of nuclear experimentation and failure resulted in the earth’s surface being completely devoid of human life; instead, everyone lives underground. The natural world that humans once lived in is now only able to be experienced virtually. The technology of this future underground civilization is remarkable in many ways, but most incredible is the ability for humans to briefly communicate with the dead. Trepple, this act’s protagonist, is able to converse with her recently deceased mother. While this ability is nothing short of miraculous, the virtual conversation must eventually conclude, and Trepple is left with a grief that is, compared to her virtual reality, overwhelmingly real.

Trepple decides that she must experience the real thing: she must go above ground and see the world that has been abandoned. As she surfaces and explores, the stories from the previous two acts begin to combine with this one. Trepple wanders into an apartment, where she discovers Maki, Maho’s pregnant sister from Act II. Trepple is desperate to save Maki–after all, earth is uninhabitable, and Maki and her unborn child are both in grave danger. As Trepple attempts to convince Maki to come underground to safety, we see Nina–from Act I–attempt to find her family in the wake of the Chernobyl explosion. Everything melts into horror and confusion; the world is unsafe for all three characters, and the orderly and understandable lives they had previously been living are now nothing beyond pure chaos and imminent danger.

Act III is a tale of caution; a picture of what life will look like once humans have destroyed the earth yet are still determined to remain in charge. It is also a prediction of how the uncontrollable development of technology will lead to our eventual inability to communicate with each other on an essential human level. Until Trepple discovers Maki, she has never before had to interact with another human without the aid of technology, and it isn’t until she is in the midst of disaster that she discovers that she still knows how. Act III reminded us that we can use technology as a means to avoid as many problems as we want, but the emotional damage will be unavoidable and permanent.

The production’s use of technology throughout its entirety was quite remarkable: everything from a thoroughly detailed soundscape, to projections that accessed every blank surface, to the actors manipulating cameras and microphones as they discovered the constantly changing rules of the universe, all contributed to creating an experience that was fully realized and alarmingly palpable. And yet, like the protagonists, the moments that I remember most vividly were the interactions between humans sharing a space–moments that pushed through the technological noise and erased the virtuality, reminding me that we must relate to each other in true reality. As Nina stood in front of me telling the story of her escape and how frightened she was, as Maho made eye contact with me while I decided whether she would save herself or stay with her sister, and as Trepple walked past me taking her first steps on the earth’s surface, I realized once again that as powerful as we feel within the virtual worlds we create, there will never be any substitute for the deep emotional connectivity that can be shared between two human beings.

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