The Internet of the Soul

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Take this quick little yes/no quiz with me:

- Have you checked your email more than twice in the last half hour?
- Are you more likely to be nervous about losing your iPhone than your wallet?
- Does the thought of being without internet access for a week make you more than a little edgy?

If you answered 'yes' to any of the above you need to go see Matt McCray's world-premiere play Eternal Thou.

In Eternal Thou, McCray uses the seemingly un-theatrical concept of Net Neutrality as a springboard to dramatizing the history of Internet, privacy in the Age of Google, and, for good measure, the mystical thinking of philosopher Martin Buber. The result is an elegantly designed, physically virtuosic, sci-fi fantasy that could only happen in the theater.

Let's start with the building blocks: Net Neutrality and Martin Buber's Ich Du. Net-Neutrality is the philosophy that all traffic on the internet -whether it's a pie recipe from your grandma or a movie streaming from Verizon - should travel at the same speed.

McCray's other inspiration is Austrian philosopher Martin Buber's 1923 book, Ich Du (translated "I-Thou" or "I-You"). Buber contends that there are two basic relationships we find ourselves in: the first, the I-It where we view everything around us (even people) as objects to be used; the second less common and more divine is the I-You relationship where rather than seeing an other, we discover "we are one" - "neither separate nor joined."

Playwright/director/producer Matt McCray takes Buber's binary philosophy and melds it with the 0's and 1's of the digital age. Sounds like heady stuff, right? It is and that's part of the joy of the piece.

McCray grounds these lofty thoughts in the bodies and voices of five chameleon-like actors. Digital jitter becomes the repetition of a sound; static becomes the repetition of a gesture.

Does the whole play work? No. When McCray tackles The Singularity - you know the Terminator moment when the machines will supposedly take over - things get a little muddy. He's striving, both in the writing and direction, for a divine transcendence that's just out of reach. As a result the play becomes a bit unmoored about three quarters of the way through and you can feel the audience lean back and just let it wash over them.

But the genius of the piece is that it makes this ubiquitous thing we take for granted, the internet, and it makes it strange, unfamiliar. By juxtaposing operators at Bell switchboards in the 1920's with a customer service rep in India in the 21st Century, the audience begins to connect the dots and see a vastly more complicated picture.

Matt McCray distinguishes himself with Eternal Thou as one of the most inventive and, pardon the pun, plugged-in theater makers in LA. He'll leave you thinking about that iPhone in your pocket a little differently.

Eternal Thou plays at the Atwater Village Theater through April 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with an intermission.

Banner image: (Front L-R) Vonzell Carter, Liam Springthorpe, Rachel Appelbaum, Jenny Greer and Jeffrey Johnson; on screen behind, Jennifer Weaver, in Eternal Thou. Photo by Matthew McCray