I’m not sure why plays without actors have become a trend in theater, but between Gabriel Lester’s “Super Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)” at Abrons Arts Center last November during Performa 13 and this week’s production of Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh’s “33 rpm and a few seconds” at Asia Society, the notion of a humanless theater isn’t odd anymore. And perhaps, Mroué and Saneh suggest, we should blame social media.
The constant river of information that is Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social streams may be important in our daily lives, but in “33 rpm and a few seconds,” the playwrights linger on what we don’t, or can’t, know, even after dozens of updates and notifications.
The play begins with a spotlight shining on a desk in Beirut overcrowded with gadgets and electronics, and surrounded by older forms of media (books, record player, television). A vintage record starts playing an old French song that evokes a sense of nostalgia, maybe a time before the Lebanese Civil War, when things were better, or maybe simpler, or just different. From there, the sounds of text messages, email notifications, television programs, and other electronic pings take over throughout the 60-minute production as we’re confronted with the story of a Lebanese anarchist activist, Diyaa Yammout, and his suicide.
Loosely based on the real death of a Lebanese activist a few years ago, Mroué and Saneh’s tale is told through screens and audio. The primary storytelling device is the dead activist’s Facebook page, which is projected onto a large screen and fills up with messages from friends and colleagues shocked and angered by the news. That evolving story is interspersed with flashbacks of text messages — projected on the same large screen — from a woman of Palestinian descent who we assume was in a relationship with Yammout, though, like much of the story, the details are unclear.
The play was first performed in 2012, when there was more optimism about the so-called Arab Spring and the power of social media to bring about change. Just a couple years ago, the Egyptian Revolution, which was facilitated by Facebook groups, actually seemed like a revolution of sorts, while the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, was the spark that engulfed the region in the flames of change.
In 2014, however, there’s a sorrowful mood lingering in the room of “33 rpm and a few seconds,” as so-called revolutions have veered off track and regimes in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere don’t promise the great change they once did. Our relationship with social media is also less optimistic, after Edward Snowden proved our worst fear: that worldwide governments have long been monitoring us in a Kafkaesque system that includes the use of fake social media accounts and blogs to spread false information.
The tone in “33 rmp and a few seconds” is very Lebanese, with its passionate drive for change tempered by the realities of a society and government organized around sect. Lebanon is a country that can feel burdened by familial ties and traditions, not to mention a streak of xenophobia and paranoia, which slow down any potential for progress. The characters we meet on-screen, many of whom are activists themselves, often disparage the situation in Lebanon, which makes their work feel impossible, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill.
At one point the voice of the dead man’s girlfriend speaks through his answering machine: “We can be outside our bodies, but we cannot be outside language.” The line is a nod towards the play’s form — brief electronic messages that rain down from various sources. Spam messages for penis enlargements interrupt dramatic moments, ads frame the Facebook feed animation (which looks very 2012), and we hardly see any of Yammout’s friend’s faces (except in one or two short video clips), so we feel disconnected from their pain.
A little later, another character writes on Yammout’s Facebook wall, “I love the message but hate messengers.” Language is at the center of this production, which would explain why it’s part of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. Yet all I could see was the way language breaks down in the face of real tragedy. Facebook messages are manipulated by Lebanon’s sectarian media in the play, and friends react in despair. Can we trust Facebook or the television channels to tell us a story as important as this? Could we ever?
Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh’s “33 rpm and a few seconds” continues today, April 30, with two performances (7pm and 9pm) at Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).