Arts and Entertainment | Theater

A journey through virtual reality: NOMADS' username

The stage of the Glicker-Milstein Theater is overlaid with a glowing green microchip design. As chiptune music plays overhead, the lights lower on a teenage boy alone in his bedroom, his face illuminated only by the light of a laptop screen.

“username” is a play that couldn’t have existed 10 years ago. Produced by NOMADS, an on-campus student theater troupe that produces student-written plays each semester, and written by Joey Santia, CC ’17, the play premiered Oct. 20 and ran through Oct. 22. Director Leo Angulo, CC ’17, and stage manager Yvette Kleinbock, BC ’19, worked together with a cast of eight actors to bring his idea of virtual reality to life.

Taking place half in the real world and half in a virtual fantasy world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, the play, from start to finish, is a product of Internet culture. The characters use Internet slang—ASL, LOL—to communicate. Many of the funniest references might be lost on audience members who are not as well accustomed to spending time in online chat rooms and games. One character, the Announcer, played by Zoey Massie, BC ’20, pops up at inopportune moments to advertise anything from free iPads to penis enhancement pills.

The experiences of main character Toby (Matthew Taub, CC ’17) are extremely specific, but there’s still a universal quality in the emotions presented in “username.”  Santia describes this in his preface to the play, a short note on the first page of the program: “In a play obsessed with loneliness in a community and a community of loners, Toby has a place to tell his story.” “username” is about Internet culture. That same Internet culture that unites most of our generation under an umbrella of shared jokes and memes is used as a tool to explore isolation through Toby’s eyes.

There’s a stark juxtaposition in scenes that take place in the virtual world—in the stage’s foreground, brightly colored lights and flashing projections create a world in which Toby’s avatar interacts with other characters, while in the background Toby sits, isolated, illuminated by a single spotlight. It’s a constant reminder that even though there seems to be human interaction taking place, there’s still a self-imposed isolation pervading Toby’s life.

This ingenious staging method lends itself extremely well to the story. It even facilitates the climax of the play. At one point, Toby leaves the background to step into the internet at the forefront of the stage and take his avatar’s place in the video game, culminating in a scene in which character and player become one, where the lines between the real world and the virtual world are blurred.

Each actor, too, needed to exist in two simultaneous spheres. The small scale of the production meant that most cast members played multiple roles, one for each ‘world.’ Taub’s somber portrayal of Toby grounded the play, even as actors like Tim Kiley, CC ’19, and Anna Stoneman, BC ’18, created larger-than-life avatars in front of him. Francisco Alvidrez, CC ’19, however, was the true show-stealer in his role as Daren, a 39-year-old sex offender posing as an 18- year-old boy. It could have been easy to fall into an angry, one-note stereotype, but Alvidrez brought a nuance to an otherwise repulsive character that could almost convince the audience that he was the true victim, even as he contributed to Toby’s isolation.

The greatest irony of the play lies in Toby’s lack of realization that there is support for him in his real life—he just can’t see it. His sister (Jordan Goodson, CC ’19) and his friend Justin (Spencer Tilghman, CC ’19) both approach him on multiple occasions, asking him if he’s okay, but the only person he’s able to open up to is ‘Rickie,’ a friend he made online. He bemoans his lack of support and meaningful relationships in his life, seeking instead to find those connections online, without realizing that they already exist around him. When at the end of the play ‘Rickie’ is revealed not to be an 18-year-old boy but a 39-year-old convicted sex offender, Toby is crushed, taking the lie as a huge betrayal of his trust.

In this way, the core plot of “username” is the classic “stranger danger” story college students grew up hearing from every parent, teacher, and adult in their community.

In “username,” there are shiny costumes, neon weapons, and larger-than-life adventures—but behind it all is a constant reminder of the loneliness that fuels it. Santia has managed to achieve something both incredibly specific and simultaneously universal with “username,” and when you peel back the colorful, futuristic façade, the raw human emotion at the production’s heart is all the more jarring.


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