Flashing Lights delivers a heavy dose of theatre realism on stage in Toronto
Science fiction is a very tricky genre to pull off in a sphere such as independent performing arts. This is something that the creators at Bad News Days and Ahuri Theatre must have been aware of, given their bold, “challenge accepted” attitude in the concept and execution of Flashing Lights.
We follow Peter, an average suburban father who skyrockets into fame when he is the subject of a viral video online. His rise and fall examine human nature, technology and capitalism, and how a combination of all three can lead to hilarious and horrifying outcomes.
As we walk into the theatre, the set design does a great deal to establish mood and setting. It is a dark and industrial space, with a large scrim positioned at stage front. Not only is this a clever way to subvert theatre tropes by re-inserting the fourth wall, but it makes the stage itself into one big screen.
Even in a traditional, “real” art form like theatre, the effects of the digital world are present. Information, entertainment, and even other human beings are up for our consumption and judgment. The sheer number of screens and cameras on stage at all times reinforce this notion — every character has a smartphone, laptop or tablet, and the times in which they aren’t engaged with such devices, they are usually being broadcast, recorded or observed.
To effectively convey just how much technology looms over our lives, the performance doesn’t have to stray too far from real life today, which is perhaps why it is such an effective fable. The content and message are pretty damning when it comes to how we think, communicate and consume in the 21st century, however it never feels sanctimonious. Instead, we laugh at ourselves, even if it is uncomfortable laughter. Peter isn’t a far cry from people in real life who have become famous due to the fickle nature of the internet, although the sharp and complex performance provided by Dan Watson helps as well.
There’s an odd mix of high-concept sci-fi with “relatable content” in this production but the two are balanced quite well, at least up until the third act. Peter’s story is a plausible one about average guys failing upwards and strained family ties. It is after his 15 minutes of fame are up — rather amusingly tracked by a countdown on a screen — that the play doubles down on its cerebral futuristic absurdity.
The migration from online culture to post-humanism as the show’s subject matter is unclear in its “how” and “why”. Although the play is painfully truthful in its depiction of the internet as chaotic and cruel, the sting is lessened by having to consider more philosophical arguments. It’s like asking your audience to bemoan a burnt piece of toast, but also the heat death of the universe at the same time. Are we meant to slow down, digest and discuss, or do we allow ourselves to be swept away in the frenzied pace of the internet? Then again, it is for the better that the play doesn’t answer this question.
Overall, Flashing Lights is a sharply-written satire that invites their audience to think about the present and future of technology and communication. Fans of William Gibson novels or of Netflix’s Black Mirror series will feel right at home in the delightfully melancholy world that the artists — and we as consumers — have built here.
- Flashing Lights is on until October 22, 2017 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
- Shows are at 8 pm on weeknights and Saturdays, with 2 pm matinees on Sundays
- Tickets are pay-what-you-can with suggested price points of $5, $20, $45 and $60.
- Tickets can be purchased online or by contacting the box office at 416-538-0988
Photo of Dan Watson by Francesca Chudnoff