Mickle Maher's "Song About Himself," at the Catastrophic Theatre through Dec. 3, is a post-apocalyptic story, but it's not about the downfall of the government or society.
Instead, the apocalypse is of the mind, of language and of intimacy. It's an Armageddon from a poet's perspective.
Using just three actors and no scenery, the play takes place sometime in the future. It's a time when people have become so dependent on the Internet for communication that, when the Internet becomes corrupted, they lose the ability to relate to one another. The new Internet, called "The Weed," is a wasteland of mumbles and murmurs - but so is the analog world. Unable to speak, people drag themselves from their apartments in a search for connection, only to find trash, slush and empty streets.
Their one hope is a social network named YouSpake, moderated by Host or Hostess (Jovan Jackson), where you can do "lengthyposts" and even embellish them with emojis. The network is accessible only to humans, who have to prove their humanity by improvising jazz on the clarinet.
Carol (a feverishly longing Tamarie Cooper), the protagonist, is a lonely woman whose favorite television show is about a group of people trying and failing to listen to a CD of Walt Whitman's poems (the disc is smudged, they drop it under the couch and can't fish it out, and so on). She learns jazz and joins YouSpake in a desperate attempt to converse with another human being. She's surprised by what she doesn't find inside.
Jazz, Whitman and the fall of humanity? Putting these concepts together sounds peculiar, even absurd, yet there is a deep coherence to Maher's vision, a view of the world that starts off sounding like babble but, over the course of two hours, turns to poetry.
"Song about Himself" does this with a subtle, elegiac hand. It moves its ideas in baby steps, presenting little onstage and offering peeks into the mystery through a collage of short scenes. The lights turn on, one or two actors speak, and before too much is resolved or revealed, the audience finds itself sitting, once again, in the dark silence of the theater.
If Maher - and, by extension, director Jason Nodler - worked in a different medium, he'd be called an abstract expressionist, or a maker of soundscapes and "tone poems." It's an approach that emphasizes form over content, how over what. It's also an approach that, in jazz, separated Ornette Coleman from Louis Armstrong. John Cage, e.e. cummings and Samuel Beckett similarly deconstructed their art forms in search for a truth that could transcend convention.
That's why "Song About Himself" features Tod (Noel Bowers), an unexpected visitor to YouSpake who says, "mutters, mumbles, trails off," then trudges out of view. That's why the actors never look at each other, and always stand in disparate corners of the room, as if in different eras. That's why the rhythm of the play is so staccato, why its words and phrases sound so foreign.
The play's architecture is itself a commentary on amnesia and disconnection. As in Coleman's work, its form illuminates and sometimes even trumps its content. Maher's minimalism is the theatrical representation of oblivion.
Put another way, Maher's play is "Black Mirror" - the sci-fi Netflix show that channels our current technological paranoia - done in the style of "Waiting for Godot." And though it has just as much to say as "Black Mirror" about how technology has complicated our definition of human interaction, this play does so with the graze of a finger rather than a slap.
By presenting a siloed world, "Song About Himself" raises pertinent questions about what we demand from Facebook and Instagram and explores the troubling philosophical implications they raise. Are we all damning ourselves to a future of solipsistic mumbling? Is our need for affirmation from millions of strangers a sign of impending isolation? Are things turning toward the apocalypse? Have we all been blind to what has come?
Don't look to Carol, Tod and Host or Hostess for any answers. The lonely woman, the muttering man and the robot have come to YouSpake precisely to connect and look at how terrible a job they're doing, how desperate they still are. They've forgotten what it was like to interact without the Internet. There are stories to tell and poetry to be heard and they can't even say hello.
You might say, at times, Maher's play doesn't seem to make sense. You might say, 'Thank god we aren't these three sad souls.' As if reality has any more coherence. As if our society now is unified. And as if Maher's theatrical deconstruction isn't a perfect metaphor for 2016.
No, "Song About Himself" isn't fact, but it has sure arrived at what feels like the perfect time, when everything else feels like fiction.
'Song About Himself'
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 3, but no performance on Thanksgiving
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main
Tickets: You decide what you pay, but $35 is the suggested donation; catastrophictheatre.com