Just as the acrid smoke wafting into the audience from a pan of bacon onstage starts to burn your eyes, the realization settles in.
"AREA," Torn Space Theater's second and greatly improved production of Dan Shanahan's original piece of theater, is trying to frighten us to death.
The atmospheric theatrical experiment, which opened Thursday night in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, achieves its authentic sense of horror by depositing its characters into a strange world of fleeting beauty, momentary pleasure and intermittent terror, but entirely devoid of meaning.
The piece is meant to reflect on the dangers of piecing together an identity for yourself by digital means. It's rife with overt references to Facebook and MySpace, but goes beyond simply criticizing the mindlessness of such endeavors to make an argument about the increasingly fragmentary way we represent ourselves in the digital world. The piece settles on a phrase that perfectly captures the sense of incompleteness of a life lived through a digital prism: "sensation without catharsis."
With "AREA," Shanahan also poses certain questions about our culture's addiction to stories. He's created what local film critic and blogger Girish Shambu calls "a theater of states," in which emotions like fear and fascination need not be tethered to a storyline.
By removing and modifying certain too-literal exchanges that pulled last year's production of "AREA" a bit too close to the ground, Shanahan has added a layer of abstraction that helps us focus on the horror and immediacy of the piece. The results are both frightening and exhilarating.
Using two unnamed female characters (played with the serious gravity by Kara Gabrielle McKenny and Rebecca Globus) and a vague shadow of an already shadowy plot, "AREA" takes audiences not on a storied journey as much as through a series of tense and uncomfortable hallucinations.
The show's thematic vocabulary is huge and hints at issues of control, submission, narcissism, sexual desire, abandonment and desperation. That it simply represents them without delving into their meaning is part of the show's appeal.
As our culture continues to fragment itself into smaller and less meaningful bits of binary code, Shanahan offers us a theatrical representation fragmented to the same degree. In this way, he employs his piece of "post-dramatic theater" not out of simple disgust or boredom with the theatrical status quo, but as an attempt to match our cataclysmically shifting culture and its demand for new modes of expression.
And yeah, that has the potential to be pretty distressing for theatergoers long acclimated to Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner and the whole beloved gang of storytellers. But it points the theater in a new direction -- maybe not the right one, mind you -- and that's a momentous achievement at a time when everyone and their dog believes that originality has keeled over and died.
It's difficult not to take "AREA," in all its shrieking, hallucinatory bluster, as a warning about the nightmarish future we're all hurtling toward. It's also hard not to take it as its own sort of masterpiece.