Virtual Life

Miss V, a virtual avatar for a tech corporation in the play Terms of Use, uses all kinds of appeals to maintain her company’s monopoly over users.

The winning play from Paper Wing Theatre’s annual summer playwriting competition starts its life on paper only, then evolves to the stage when it gets a full production the following year. Last year’s winner, Terms of Use, came from the pen of Patrick M. Brennan, who lives in the Bay Area and is also a software developer.

His play has elements that might remind some people of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One or the 1990s Brat Pack thriller Flatliners (which was remade in 2017), but its source material is closer to YouTube, Snapchat, virtual reality environments, online multiplayer games and Facebook.

It has the hallmarks of Silicon Valley. Its characters live in Mountain View and Oakland, and the plot revolves around a San Francisco company called Virtopia and its virtual reality helmet called a V-Helm.

The seductive company spokeswoman avatar, Miss V (Alyssa Matthews, playing her with an ominously sunny disposition), tells us in a promotional video that its 1 billion worldwide users can “live out your wildest dreams [to] do and be anything you have ever imagined.”

There is a fast scroll of disclaimers, like “side effects may occur” and “subject to terms of use.” Then the next scene is at a beach between adult siblings CC (Jay Brew, played with darkly obsessed eyes) and Fanta (Lucy Tran, playing the character jaded but pragmatic).

“This is one of yours?” Fanta asks.

“Yeah. You like it?” CC says.

It’s a virtual beach, we discover, and they are not actually there together, simply interacting in an environment of CC’s creation. They talk about their parents, who were killed by a car bomb when the siblings (they have an older sister, too) were kids.

A morbid curiosity about their death – and death in general – has taken hold of CC. Back in the real world, he lives with his unemployed sister Martha (Alanna Youngblood, playing a grounded and religious character) and their friend Erik (Jason Roeder, goofy, hapless and likable) in a humble house close to foreclosure.

CC’s bedroom is realized in Paper Wing’s small black box theater with an old bed, gutted computer hardware strewn about, haphazardly strung cables and 1980s neon accents. The interactive video segments, special effects and music by Persis Tomingas are done with DIY ingenuity, and the costuming communicates poverty and future tech at the same time.

Martha fears that CC is spending too much time in the virtual world, but he insists that through the V-helm, he’s breaking through to another dimension – maybe a spiritual one. He has to do it by experiencing his own death, in multiple ways, through a jailbreaked, or illegally hacked, V-helm. He’s been doing it for months, maybe at the cost of his health and sanity.

“He can’t just have virtual sex like all the other perverts on the net,” Martha says to Erik.

The world of Terms of Use is like our world: The Bay Area has become so insular, expensive and internet-connected that its rules have been hijacked by tech monopolies like Virtopia. Jobs are scarce, wages are low, health care is out of reach and life is so tough that people are retreating to the idyllic virtual worlds that the tech giant offers them. But there is an exchange for the escape.

At some point, Virtopia finds out about the hacked V-helm and Miss V descends to contain the breakthrough (mis)application.

That’s enough about the plot, which is deftly kept coherent by director Erin Elizabeth Davison. The main course is not the plot, but the philosophical battles. Martha is spiritual and abiding; CC is exploring and innovating in the virtual world like a mad scientist; and cynical Fanta, a hacker, is adept at navigating the real world.

In the siblings, Brennan mixes the spiritual, the virtual and the physical worlds as archetypes, though they don’t feel like mere symbols. With Miss V, who shows up as a holograph as well as a lifelike robot, he adds the dimension of corporate capitalism. With Erik, an opportunist who is selling CC’s hack to clients for money, they all compete in a battle of ideas. Or negotiations.

The dialogue moves briskly, juggling the moral quandaries with tech talk and relationship dynamics.

“Just give me back my helmet, and go back to whatever it is you do,” CC tells Martha. “Go pray or something.”

Sometimes there are too many verbal volleys going on, and you can see when the steering wheel is turning toward a couple of monologues. But the different points of view are really well balanced and sympathetic.

The play is dark but fun, not quite dystopian but getting there, and smart, like a four – or five-way debate. Its plot twists and turns will ring familiar to anyone paying attention to news stories about tech’s corporate culture, net neutrality, user privacy versus profit, social media’s psychic toll, addictive products and features – all of which we receive and share through that ultimate virtual reality called the internet.

TERMS OF USE runs 8pm Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 15-17, at Paper Wing’s Gallerie Theatre, 320 Hoffman Ave., Monterey. $10. 905-5684, paperwing.com

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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