One of the blessings of digital theatre is opening yourself up to a blending of art forms. While some companies choose to leave the camera still and let the performances do the talking, others embrace the sense of play and structural possibilities and run with it.
With Internet Girlfriend, from A Bit Much Productions, we get just that, a theatre/film hybrid that is as much moving pictures as it is moving bodies that will likely expand your vision of what it means to watch a play.
The story centers on the relationship between Daisy (Megan Adam), a Youtouber working her way through life sharing ideas and growing pains on camera, and Connor Beck (Leo Mates), a singer-songwriter of considerable renown who’s regularly on Youtube’s front page.
The thin line between admiration and hero-worship quickly comes to the fore when, after we’ve followed Daisy into adulthood, she receives a video call from Beck, who she’s vlogged about as a long-time fan, and she is instantly at the mercy of his approval. He doesn’t ring in at random, either; rather, it’s suggested that he builds up to that moment to grant it a sense of authenticity, a hint of nefariousness to it all, but barely enough to notice.
Over subsequent calls, and a very short amount of time, the two build a virtual rapport and end up living together. But again, as viewers, we are given tiny reasons to pause if we care to notice, reasons that seem to be escalating into a fight-or-flight situation. This time, they concern Beck’s language toward Daisy, which I’d describe as establishing superiority veiled in cutesy tones (note his use of the word ‘weird’), and saying all the right romantic things (which he clearly doesn’t mean) to someone so taken with him she’ll default to believing him no matter what he says. Once they’re living out of Connor’s flat, the power dynamics at play come into fuller view.
To get through to people, I think a work of art about abuse should say so in a multitude of ways without spelling it out and devolving into a P.S.A. Internet Girlfriend abides by this view, such that you may not know what’s going on until you take the time to add up every hint of trouble.
Adam excels at the delicate job of guiding us to this realization, because Daisy’s struggle to differentiate between the world on screen and the world outside is also our struggle. As critical consumers of media, we all know to lead with skepticism before we’re presented with tangible proof, but that’s of course not always the case. We all get carried away. The adoration Adam fills Daisy’s eyes with transforms the red flags she’s surrounded by into scenery, right up until we can’t ignore them any longer. In this way, the audience has a chance for their moral compasses to kick in before they’re kicked in for us.
Mates, as the other half of this two-hander, provides us with a performance that does what it’s supposed to, which is to be vile, slimy and see-through, to summon up in us everything we know to be holy and good, because all we can do is watch his character embody the exact opposite.
Once the pair are in Beck’s flat, his transgressions begin to tap us on the head a little harder, always nudging Daisy in the direction of his preferences, convincing her that her suffering is self-inflicted, while constantly reminding her that their relationship is special and worth cherishing. And it devolves into much worse from there. While Daisy’s idealization might jumpstart our critical faculties by dulling them, Beck’s objectification of her, first as an undertow, then conceited and unconscionable, should bring to mind a long list of powerful men who chose to inflict trauma over remembering the feeling of the ground beneath their feet.
Going back to my point on hybridity, this all unfolds through a mix of live-action shots and confessional-style YouTube videos that lend themselves to the feeling of getting to know someone. The proximity of Daisy and Connor’s facial expressions, they in front of their laptops, us in front of ours, tricks us into thinking words like ‘relationship’ and ‘intimacy’ are appropriate descriptors, when what we’re seeing are just representations made convincing by patchy narratives our brains went ahead and filled in. I applaud this choice, this immersion into the digital, not only on account of its timeliness, but also the fact that the play wouldn’t be as effective if carried out on a stage in its entirety. This is theatre of the Internet that managed to entrench itself in my ethical engine and reinforce how precious and flawed it is when people let you into their lives.
Hats off to Director Melly Magrath for tying everything together with a sense of awe at human connection, in spite of the monsters one must contend with along the way.
Hat off also to Adam and her writing, as there are numerous lines throughout the show that encapsulate their respective moments with a flair/precision you cannot teach. You’ll know them when you hear them.
I’ll stop short of spoiling the crescendo and denouement, but they strike me as tidily and realistically executed, imbuing Daisy with the awareness and newfound consciousness one would hope to gain after such an ordeal.
Internet Girlfriend runs until November 28, 2021.
20% of the proceeds will be donated to The Redwood Shelter.