In this weird theater season — the “asterisk” season, when every achievement comes with a giant virus-shaped caveat — it’s hard to categorize our responses to art. Is this gratitude I’m experiencing, or appreciation? Is this emotion due to my own isolation or the thing itself? But at least technical admiration is unambiguous. You know what you’re feeling when someone sinks a basket from a whole court away.
And on that level, Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s berserker comedy Circle Jerk is a coup. Filmed and broadcast live with multiple sets, a trillion costume changes, and an aesthetic of relentless stimulation, it’s the first digital production I’ve seen that’s a true, non-sterile hybrid of theater and film. Circle Jerk was born for the online environment, suckled on the dankest basement memes, an overstimulated baby of the present moment. For once, here’s a digital-theatrical performance that wouldn’t be better in person.
Part of its ease with hybridity comes from camp — Circle Jerk is queer as hell, exuberantly louche, a little dribbly. Breslin and Foley each play a number of characters on the show’s mysterious Gayman Island, including a repulsive internet creature, the Troll, with a dirty muslin doll’s body and vertical blue hair. (It speaks in rhyming couplets and drools.) Wigs are wiggy and sometimes applied sideways; costume changes are chaotic scrambles that are sometimes “caught” (oops! ooh!) on camera. Despite the production’s sophistication, the slap-it-together vibe is deliberately puerile and Zillennial: Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre behind a TikTok filter, an Alfred Jarry play if Père Ubu started flogging a mindfulness app.
After the Troll welcomes us to Gayman Island, Foley appears as Jurgen, a Milo Yiannopoulos–esque right-winger, who has been canceled for his repellent political activities. “First they came for the white women, and I said nothing — because I agreed,” he muses, regretfully. Enraged, he plans his white gay supremacist revenge with the help of his pet software genius Lord Baby Bussy (Breslin), crafting an AI bot out of an Amazon Alexa and a stolen social-media profile. The resulting cyber-succubus (Cat Rodríguez) whispers her poison into the internet, and Jurgen and Bussy’s project starts to bear fruit: The world begins to be gradually purged of everyone but white gay men. Various visitors (also Foley and Breslin and Rodríguez) offer token resistance, but are soon seduced, usually through flattery or an appeal to their own self-interest.
The show is shot in Theater Mitu’s flexible MITU580 space in Brooklyn, where a dozen cameras can follow the actors as they dash around the space. The co-director, Rory Pelsue, has the actors whizz between an immaculate living room set, decorated in blue velvet, and Jurgen’s tech-lair, which looks a little like backstage. At various points, the production switches to internet images, toggling between scenes and clips from their online inspirations. (The script calls this a Meme Ballet.) I’ve seen that sort of multimedia material projected in conventional theater productions, but web content in meatspace is usually a fish in a phone booth — it dies and it doesn’t reach anyone. In contrast, Circle Jerk occupies both “our” screen and “their” stage, comfortably manipulating both media. The Meme Ballet’s viral videos are at home on our laptops; the theatrical conventions make the ragged seams seem glamorous. The production does what neither form can do alone: I bet artists will be using it as a model, even after the pandemic.
Obsession with models, though, may be why the 100-minute show slows down. This is despite what seems like a speeding-up: In Act III, everyone takes their clothes off and freaks out in front of ring lights, while acting out a scene from the aughts reality show The Hills. Some of this is down to the show’s unrelenting tendency to test (or perhaps flatter) its audience: Breslin and Foley write dense, witty stuff, full of allusions, all flung with violence — pearls hurled at pigs. Do you get this joke about Broadway message boards? Do you hear the echoes of Molière and The Wizard of Oz and Leo Bersani? The show sneers whether you catch the reference or not. (And woe betide you if you’re not invested in The O.C..)
Like its oft-referenced French neoclassical and drag satire forebears, the play is best when we’re meeting the characters. Exposition is the show’s sharpest writing, quippy and wicked. “I am a prophet in the iconic tradition of all fabulous Greek gays,” says Jurgen. “Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Maria Callas, Nia Vardalos.” Or Bussy sums himself up thus: “If the internet’s the Wild West and everyone’s a cowboy, I’m the hussy in the back of the saloon who knows all their secrets and dreams — the nasty shit people only type into search bars when they think no one’s looking.” Zing. There’s a quotable line every 20 seconds; it’s a shame people don’t get rich as epigrammatists any more. But while Jurgen mocks the idea of “plot,” Circle Jerk does actually suffer from its lack. Causes don’t prompt effects, so characters will occasionally just … shoot each other. If you’re caught up in the mood of pop-culture Insta-scrolling, then this randomness will feel exhilarating and hilarious. (Die, Bussy, Die!) If you’re not on the show’s particular poppers, though, the plot-is-for-suckers incoherence can make the show seem longer than it is.
You know how it feels when you lose all your open web tabs and suddenly can’t remember a single article you were reading? It’s a bit like that: too much attention, and too little. What will stay with you from Circle Jerk, though, apart from Foley’s terrifying Troll (which drips saliva on itself while grinning flirtatiously), is that there’s a way to make a digital theater show, live, that has movement and surprise and polish. Circle Jerk proves that the transgressions of the avant-garde are still possible even in our unshockable virtual world: You can do it by showing the sweat of performance and taking us behind-the-scenes; you can do it by creating a bouffon clown so alarming and grotesque that no horror movie could match it. By the end of the show, after the story has ended (somewhat arbitrarily), the trio of performers fall back on old pre-virtual stuff, doing Bob Fosse choreography, dancing to the “Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago. Within the context of the show, it seems a bit like “please look at these jazz hands instead of the fact that we haven’t got an ending.” But Foley and Breslin and Rodríguez are also damn good at it. They wriggle and shrug and tip their bowler hats. In Fosse’s hands, vaudeville got sexier after it died. In these new hands, maybe the same goes for theater.
Circle Jerk is streaming performances at circlejerk.live through October 23, and available in recorded form after that through November 7.