“Awaiting friend confirmation.”
That string of time between the moment “Add as friend” is clicked and the accepted friend request notification is received can hold an unnerving, though sometimes unnoticed, weight. Contrary to the reality of face-to-face contact, the world of social networking creates a black and white contrast, where relationships either are or aren’t.
Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” But what happens when the utility meant to open doors slams them shut? Or, even worse – locks you in?
New Paradise Laboratories’ presentation of “FATEBOOK: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time” braids the realms of actual and virtual reality into one in the same.
The performance, which ran from Sept. 4 to Sept. 19 at Northern Liberties’ AREA 919 as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, begins on the computer screens of audience members at fatebooktheshow.com and various social networking Web sites.
In cyberspace, viewers can interact with and get to know the central 13 Philadelphians on a virtual level, “friending” them as individuals on Facebook, following them on Twitter and watching their YouTube videos.
“[The audience] can interact with the characters, both online and in person,” said Whit MacLaughlin, director of FATEBOOK and artistic director at New Paradise Laboratories. “They can be a part of the show in discreet, mischievous and comfortable ways.”
In real space, spectators gather in the AREA 919 gallery and are led across the venue’s parking lot to an adjacent garage. The garage door is raised, and witnesses are finally find themselves face to face with the performance space. There are no seats – only a staircase leading to scattered layers of movie screens featuring the projections’ bluish light with a familiar “FATEBOOK” logo.
The lights flicker off, and the once-blue screens are each covered with the face of a short-haired, red-lipped blonde – Anita Prowler, the omniscient, self-proclaimed leader of the Fatebook journey.
“Fatebook is a vast archive where you can think, contemplate fate,” Prowler tells viewers. “And fate is the medium that grinds us all into food for the worms.”
She gives the audience only two crucial details about the performance to ensue: that it is imperative to watch and follow the stories to come and that it will be impossible to learn everything about Fatebook in just one view.
Onlookers are led up the staircase to dwell among the hanging screens, each now depicting footage of the individual characters, who now stand before the audience members.
With each button of a jacket or strum of a guitar, the motions of the live actor match up to the footage playing on screen, and their thoughts and emotions are conveyed through Facebook statuses.
“Facebook at the office. (Mind-numbing break from mind-numbing work.),” reads the on-screen update from the fictional Tim Drexel, a Temple alumnus and assistant director of call center operations at UGI Utilities.
Drexel’s saga is one of a 20-something-year-old man whose dreams of becoming a musician got lost somewhere among the complacency of his engagement and the monotony of his office job.
In another status update, he writes, “Tim Drexel wants to howl at the moon tonight.”
“You animal! Just make sure to bring your howling ass to the party!” comments the fictional Clayton Hughes, a soon to be ex-law student at the University of Pennsylvania, who has come to drown his personal frustrations in alcohol.
Each individual’s odyssey of emotional, mental and social tribulations is somehow intertwined with another’s, and all eventually come together at a party, mingling and chatting with audience members and characters alike.
In a twist of – what else? – fate, the music stops, and a gun appears on the screen, firing at the entire group of party attendees.
Prowler’s face reappears on the screen, and the audience learns that the show is to play out like a reverse game of Clue.
“Fate’s a bitch,” Prowler says with a smirk. “Who’s gonna be the first to die? Chance or destiny? Chance or destiny? Maybe you should just not gamble.”
The screens are again wiped clean, and the character’s scenarios are repeated multiple times, giving viewers the chance to learn as much as they can about the characters to piece together who dies in the end, which is revealed in the last run-through of the scene.
In a place where online and offline relationships are blurred into one, “FATEBOOK” puts both realities into perspective with gravity and humor that resonates with the Facebook generation.
“I miss you,” Prowler says in her final address to the audience, “And I’ve never even met you. L-O-L.”
Maria Zankey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.