We’re all familiar with warnings about the dangers of modern technology: our phones are putting distance between us, social media actually leads to social disconnection, we’ve become a nation of scrolling zombies. All of that can be true, and at the same time, these questions have been asked about every new method of communication tech, and the results aren’t all bad. “Are You There?” by Vivian Barnes, Jonathan Norton and Gab Reisman — debuting as part of the 44th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville — explores these issues and provides a fun, fast-paced showcase for the actors of the 2019-2020 Professional Training Company.
The show is made up of nine standalone segments that flow smoothly into a cohesive whole, providing a prismatic look at contemporary methods of communication (texting, Facebook, even a very specific take on AOL Instant Messenger culture), along with older technologies like CB radio and party lines in early 20th century Louisville. The influence of director Robert Barry Fleming’s dance background is evident throughout the show, as short bursts of choreographed movement provide transitions between the sections.
Standout segments include “a short play vaguely reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town'” (written by Jonathan Norton) in which we see Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross in the afterlife, still chasing fame and relevance from the other side. Fearlessly goofy performances by Noah Keyishian, Kaitlyn Boyer, Ashtonn Thompson and Isaiah J. Williams provide big laughs along with a sober assessment of what it means to spend your life (and beyond) seeking others’ approval.
“Oppy” (written by Vivian Barnes) is a surprisingly touching look at the relationship between the Mars Opportunity Rover and the scientists who built it, and includes a particularly beautiful moment of stagecraft without any human actors onstage. (No spoilers!) “This is The Daily” (also written by Vivian Barnes) takes the illusion that our favorite podcast hosts are our actual friends and spins it into a tiny nightmare.
Jonathan Norton imagines the 1960s civil rights movement if it were online today in “#rosaparks, or I Wish a Muhf***a Would,” to hilarious effect, taking on cancel culture and asking hard questions about armchair activism. Gab Reisman’s “Facebook Invite” feels like it comes directly from the conversations we all have: “thanks for inviting me to your party/show/event, I’d love to make it but I’m just so busy.” The technology we use theoretically provides more opportunities for connection, but we end up feeling more isolated than ever.
As with most shows built out of various shorter segments, some of the endings don’t fully land. An older audience member may feel a little baffled by some of the terminology in this youth-centric show; my seat-mate, in her mid-70s, asked me for some clarifications here and there. But director Fleming keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and even if you miss a word or two, the energy and enthusiasm of the performers is delightful. The annual apprentice showcase is always so much fun: seeing so many talented performers cutting loose, in a show created for them. The company itself is beautifully diverse, with a range of ethnic backgrounds, gender presentations, and body types that reflect the world we live in. “Are You There?” asks pointed questions about what we value and how we relate to each other, with a sense of play, lightness and sparkle that makes it a pleasure to watch.
“Are You There” runs March 27 through April 12 as part of Actors’ Theatre of Louisville’s 44th Humana Festival of New American Plays. For tickets and more information, click here.