Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25
Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.
The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decides to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.
In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies in perfect techno-speak about how benign it all is.
Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.
Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.
Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”
Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.
Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.