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An Invitation Out
by Shualee Cook
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 18, 2015

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst Photo by John Lamb Mustard See Theatre

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

A few years ago, I was browsing in a gift shop and saw a sticker that said “I love my computer because my friends live in it”. I laughed because, to a whole lot of people these days, there’s a great deal of truth to that statement. As someone who has interacted online via the internet and its precursors for many years, I can very much relate to this statement, although I can also see the dangers of taking that concept to the extreme. The latest production at Mustard Seed Theatre, the world premiere production of Shualee Cook’s An Inviatation Out  makes that statement to its literal by imagining a future in which most people live virtual lives online instead of in the real world. It’s a fascinating premise, structured as an Oscar Wilde-style drawing room comedy, brought to vibrant visual life by an excellent cast and particularly striking technical elements. It takes us into a new world that’s both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

After a cleverly presented virtual introduction by an animated talking-head version of director Deanna Jent, the play introduces us to Wridget (Bob Thibeault), who designs custom avatars for online dwellers. Apparently, the majority of the world’s citizens spend their whole lives “plugged in” from age 4, paying little attention to their physical bodies and spending their days exploring virtual chat rooms, shopping malls, flight simulations, and more.  In one of these chat rooms, Wridget is hosting a party for his sister Buttercup (Julie Venegoni), who has just spent a year “unplugged” in the real world so she and her husband, FlyByNite (Daniel Lanier) could have a baby. Wridget himself is fascinated by the outside world and wishes to experience it. He thinks he can share this dream with his online love interest, Flutterbye (Laura Ernst), although others in his circle, such as the gender-bending xLuci (Justin Ivan Brown in Act 1, Nicole Angeli in Act 2), who serves as a curious mixture of critic and conscience to Wridget. There’s also Raskin (Ellie Schwetye), a friend of Buttercup’s from the “outside” who challenges Wridget to pursue his dream, and some cleverly appropriated Wildean characters such as the crazy aunt, Scandalicious (Alicia Reve’ Like) and the gregarious cleric, Reverend Variety.org (Richard Strelinger), as well as an avatar-switching maid/butler (Angeli in Act 1, Brown in Act 2).

Playwright Cook has created a fascinating and fully realized world here, populated by colorful characters who are often more than they first seem. There’s a surprising amount of depth here, and although the first act could use some tightening of the script and possibly some more comedic moments, the second act is simply marvelous. It’s challenging, intriguing, and explores issues of self-expression, entertainment vs. duty, spirituality, identity (both real and perceived) and the very nature of happiness and personal fulfillment. Using cyberspace as a setting is very timely, although there are many issues here that are universal. It’s a whimsical world with crazy character names–I love the name “Wridget” especially–but it’s also a world of surprising depth, where the very shallowness of it reveals hidden aspects of characters that weren’t initially obvious.

As Wridget, Thibeault is an engaging protagonist, able to be both charming and sullen at different moments while never becoming too melodramatic or whiny. He is well supported by Venegoni as the happy but somewhat overwhelmed new mother Buttercup, and Lanier as her sweetly goofy but earnest husband, FlyByNite. Strelinger puts in a fun comic performance as the personification of made-to-order spirituality, Reverend Variety.org, and Like is deliciously batty and endearing as Aunt Scandalicious. Schwetye is also strong as the intriguing and somewhat secretive Raskin, as is Ernst as the bubbly and aptly named social butterfly Flutterbye.  Angeli and Brown are both standouts in alternate roles, as a hilariously surly maid (Angeli), and a robotically efficient and then wildly erratic butler (Brown). They also share the role of xLuci, who is perhaps the key figure in this story as the voice of both questioning and reason, and both do an excellent job of making me believe they are the same character, albeit in different guises.  Angeli in particular gets the weightier portion of the character’s story, in Act 2, and handles it well, revealing the character’s vulnerability behind the brassy exterior.

Visually, this show is nothing short of stunning.  Mark Wilson’s set features a digital screen framing the stage, which is set with a background that looks somewhat unfinished, as is fitting since its simply the canvas on which the virtual world is built. The projections by Chris Jent–of the various avatars and other elements of the virtual world–are strikingly well-realized, as are wonderfully quirky and colorful 19th Century influenced costumes, designed by Beth Ashby. The technical is especially important in a show like this, taking us into an entirely imagined world and doing so with great success.

An Invitiation Out invites the audience to imagine what the future might be if the current online culture is carried to the extreme. Mustard Seed Theatre has taken us into a world that’s at once fantastic and believable, populated by a very strong, energetic cast. It’s a memorable world, visually striking and at times funny, witty, challenging and even frightening. Even though I’m not sure I would want to live there, it’s definitely a world worth visiting.

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve' Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve’ Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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