If Five Faces for Evelyn Frost were a Buzzfeed article, it might be titled: The Social-Media Stages All Millennials Went Through While Growing Up Online.
In this 2013 play, Quebec playwright Guillaume Corbeil puts five nameless friends on stage and has them compete for likes, retweets and shares as they perform different versions of themselves over a number of years.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – none of them are ever mentioned, but they are the gods that hang over the action and to whom the words are directed in this play full of lines that sound like status updates, photo captions, comments and hashtags rather than conventional dialogue.
At the start, Corbeil’s young, hyper-connected characters tell us only what you might learn about them from a profile on an early social network such as Friendster or MySpace – their mottos, their relationship status and what they would do if they had to spend $5,000 within an hour.
Favourite bands are, of course, of paramount importance for these five at this point – and the funniest section of director Claude Poissant’s stylish production simply features the cast listing musical groups at a rapid pace for an impressively long period of time, while also gyrating through a series of juddering gestures.
For this Toronto premiere of Corbeil’s play, a co-production between Canadian Stage and Théâtre français de Toronto, the quintet of characters is played by a bilingual group of actors who all give virtuosic performances: Laurence Dauphinais, Steffi DiDomenicantonio, Tara Nicodemo, Nico Racicot and Alex Weiner. Right now, they are acting in English, but in a few weeks, they will perform the play in French.
“I like Beastie Boys,” Nicodemo’s character announces, but after she gets a condescending look from Steffi DiDomenicantonio, she posts an update: “I like Beastie Boys AND the Blind Boys of Alabama.”
You can parse what those cultural tastes mean or are meant to mean as someone scrolling through OKCupid might, but as the characters’ name-dropping turns into name-dumping, the information becomes more and more meaningless.
Bands intended to signify sophistication or broad-mindedness or cool eventually become part of a torrent of raw data that sounds like a computer malfunctioning.
(Steven McCarthy’s translation has ably transposed references to make them click with a Toronto theatre-going crowd.)
What do you show of yourself online to demonstrate you are more than a sentient Spotify list? From the form-filling stage of social media, these five characters move on to more complicated kinds of online performance.
First, they attempt to impress through hip images – chronicling a night out at the club with friends, through a succession of beautifully filtered selfies, for instance (a photo stream by Janicke Morissette fills the backdrop of Max-Otto Fauteux’s sleek set). Next, there is the sharing of personal struggles and addictions to seem more human; then, the posting of petitions for right-on political causes; then, the humblebragging about banal activities such as taking out the trash or watching TV while eating pizza.
Just when I thought Corbeil’s play was about to turn into a feed of photos of children and posts from parenting blogs, however, it took a disturbing twist.
Or, at least, it tried to. You can feel the influence of Quebec playwrights such as Olivier Choinière and Larry Tremblay in the attempt – but, in this Toronto production, it is unclear what Corbeil’s intended tone is. Weiner, for example, becomes increasingly hilarious as his status updates enter the realm of ultraviolence, while Dauphinais and Racicot stay more creepily deadpan as they to take us to depraved places.
Ultimately, as enjoyable as Five Faces for Evelyn Frost is in general, I found its substance undermined by an overly cynical view of the online world – seeing all pictures as poses, all politics as virtue signalling, and the entirety of social media activity as only about one-upmanship. That is a pose in and of itself.
Five Faces for Evelyn Frost continues to March 5 in English; it runs in French from March 21 to 25.Report Typo/Error