Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much of the intervening time wearing ridiculous headgear? Probing and humorous philosophical questions like these are supposedly at the heart of Bob Jude Ferrante’s comedy A New Theory of Vision, but you might be hard pressed to find them under the crude technical effects and bizarre story swerves. As the late Douglas Adams – something of a comedic philosopher himself, paraphrased above – might say, laboring through A New Theory of Vision’s cross-eyed gook of ghosts and computer graphics is “unpleasantly like being drunk.” Doesn’t seem so bad? Just ask a glass of water.
Vision follows Berkeley philosophy chair Lee Krebs (a committed Eric Percival), as he wrestles with his department, who wants him to write another best-seller, and visions of his dead girlfriend. When an uneasy student with Aspergers Syndrome, Erich (Matt Steiner) proposes Lee use virtual reality to develop a fresh perspective on philosophy, Lee agrees. Despite concerns from the student’s counselor (Maeve Yore), Lee and Erich embark on a poetic and surreal journey of discovery.
Never mind that technical stuff feels ten years old – choppy virtual reality hardly seems relevant in an era of iPhones and World of Warcraft. Ferrante’s play (and this production in particular) has many faults, but it certainly doesn’t want for ambition. Hanging a whole narrative on the quest to write a philosophy book about cyberspace is a tall enough order; factoring in Lee’s dead girlfriend and a handicapped sidekick suggests that the playwright had a very, very big story to tell. Or rather, several stories to tell. Vision’s script suffers most from a case of mistaken identity – first it thinks it’s Good Will Hunting, where a downtrodden professor reaches out to troubled student; then it thinks it’s The Omen, about a conniving, but brilliant devil-child (Steiner comes off a little too robotic) who sabotages those closest to him; and finally the script settles on The Cell, in which the counselor, Cara, helps Lee confront his psychological problems through special effects. Did I mention this is a comedy?
Also strange – a lot of talk about Lee’s work “hurting” Erich dominates the earlier scenes of the play, and indeed Erich is eventually hospitalized… but from what? Long hours at the computer? Then, from his hospital bed, Erich deviously orchestrates the downfall of Cara’s husband and, to some extent, Lee by posing as other people online. Cara is devastated by this, but not so devastated that a suddenly repentant Erich can’t convince her to help “rescue” Lee from continually reliving the death of his former girlfriend. There are interesting characters (Yore works wonders as Cara) and interesting ideas (like online ethics or V.R. philosophy) in Vision, but Ferrante’s short attention span keeps them from fully developing.
Also troubling, the play takes its title from Lee’s first widely popular book, a book that Lee wrote years ago and is desperately trying to escape. The specter of the book and Lee’s inability to live up to its success seems like a metaphor for his need to emotionally get past the death of his girlfriend, Jane. In both cases, he refuses to deal with the past. By titling the play A New Theory of Vision, , Ferrante sends a subconscious message that it was ultimately the more important of Lee’s books and that, metaphorically, he will NEVER really outrun his past. This problem is unnecessary because we have NO IDEA what either of Lee’s books is really about, so there’s no reason the virtual reality book he writes over the course of the play with Erich couldn’t be called “A New Theory of Vision.” (Some quick research reveals an even deeper level to this frustration – “A New Theory of Vision” is actually the title of a REAL book by Lee’s philosopher idol, George Berkeley!)
But there are things to like too. Throughout the earlier parts of the show, various characters interacting with Ted “become” his dead girlfriend Jane, by suddenly adopting her British accent and mannerisms. Ferrante and Parker showed surprising restraint here and the buildup leads nicely to the later part of the play where Lee confronts his demons, even if he does so in a laughable V.R. helmet made from a pilot’s jiffy hood.
The biggest highlight of this clumsy staging by Cat Parker is George Allison’s inventive, but inconsistent production design. Using the entire set as a projection surface, Allison creates a wide range of environments with video: the Berkeley campus, the Bay Bridge, and an abstract swirl of colors to represent cyberspace. In one neat sequence, as Lee tries to translate a bit of Latin, the words scroll above him when he figures it out. Or when he remembers his dead girlfriend, Allison punctuates it nicely with flashes of her body and the newspaper headline about her death. Cool stuff, but very distracting if the video fails to sync with the action on stage or cuts out altogether, as it did many times during the performance I attended. Like Adams said, “Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet.”
Though buried under unsuccessful video effects, baffling plot turns and insubstantial philosophy, A New Theory of Vision brims with good ideas. Maybe after a tune-up, it can cure its astigmatism.