Memes Gone Wild

Circle Jerk Foley and Rodriguez and Breslin. Credit_Emilio Madrid
“Circle Jerk” is at The Connelly Theater through June 25.
Emilio Madrid

When “Circle Jerk” debuted in October 2020, amid the depths of the Covid pandemic, it was hailed as a triumph of livestreamed theater. The caustic satire’s clever use of multimedia technology and subject matter — gay white supremacist trolls wreaking havoc on the digital landscape— was a natural fit for the onscreen format. The work was even selected as a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Now the queer-centric romp is back to celebrate #Pride month, but with a twist. Audience members have the option of viewing in-person at the Connelly Theater as well as remotely. Which begs a curious question: Does the endeavor pack the same punch in the flesh?

The answer is absolutely, and then some. Created by and starring Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley (along with Cat Rodriguez), the piece is a dizzying spoof of cancel culture, fake news, conspiracy theories, and diabolical influencers in the digital universe. And now theatergoers can watch more of what goes on behind the cameras, amping up the frenzied meta-theatrics.

In-person audiences can observe the three actors do their costume quick-changes (they play all nine roles) onstage. Seeing the talented, tireless performers go through their rigorous paces live and in real time is impressive. Plus, actors are now able to respond to the audience.

A large video screen displays the main action, yet it does not always match what we see onstage. The creators often intercut the live action with prerecorded video clips, adding to the surreal quality. It registers as an ingenious magic trick. The technical wizardry is as astonishing as it is complex, thanks to the team of David Bengali, Ted Boyce-Smith, Kathy Ruvuna, Jesse Mattes, and others.

And let’s not forget that nothing can replace the heady rush of sharing theater in a communal setting, among a cheering throng of warm, breathing humans. Theatergoers, by the way, are encouraged to grab a drink or two from the lobby bar to lubricate their mood (two intermissions offer ample opportunity). The night I attended the crowd was supercharged.

The plot, such as it is, defies succinct description. The action takes place during the off-season on Gayman Island, a summer retreat for “gay tech bros” and “the homosexual rich and fame-ish.” Here a demented duo of internet trolls named Jurgen (Foley) and Lord Baby Bussy (Breslin) scheme to create an AI meme goddess named Eva Maria (Rodriguez) with the aim of brainwashing scrollers into believing that Alt-Right white gay males must now rule the world.

There are far too many dangling plot threads to recount here. One involves Jurgen, a “slut for butt,” and his relationship with an actor “dickmitized by love” named Patrick (Foley). Adding to the intrigue is Patrick’s snarky friend Michael (Breslin), who also works in the theater (“I curate performance,” he insists) and Honney (Breslin), the celibate robotic housekeeper. Got all that?

A running joke finds the virtual assistant Alexia (Rodriguez) constantly botching commands and barging in on private conversations, a comment on the fallibility of technology.

The acutely self-conscious “Circle Jerk” appears to draw its inspiration from unlikely sources. These include plays staged by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the 1960s, the British sci-fi series “Dr. Who,” various iterations of the Frankenstein tale, and scads of pop-culture internet memes, lobbed at a breakneck clip.

There’s a distinct pleasure in seeing how many references you can recognize, like Milo Yiannopoulos, Britney, Mariah, Pepe the Frog, the Supremes, Dr. Seuss, “West Side Story,” SoulCycle, “Funny Girl” — you get the idea. One of my favorites was the birth of Eva Maria, the meme-churning fembot, when Bussy proclaims “SHE’S ONLINE!,” a sly riff on “IT’S ALIVE!” shrieked by Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein.”

Directed by Rory Pelsue with an assist from Ariel Sibert, “Circle Jerk” understands all too well how, in the age of TikTok, the internet can secretly shape tastes, identity, and culture. It gleefully lampoons the absurdity of woke rhetoric, cancel culture, and the hypocrisy of the LGBTQIA+ community. The court of law is being superseded by the court of public opinion. The end result? Anomie and chaos.

And yet, the piece registers more as a glorification than an outright indictment.

“Circle Jerk” has been described as a cautionary, mind-blowing glimpse into a dystopian future, but I’m not so sure. In today’s hyperconnected realm, millions of folks are duped into believing that climate change is a hoax, that an amoral reality TV star was a stellar US president who had the 2020 election stolen from him, and that unfettered ownership of semi-automatic assault weapons is a God-given birthright.

A case could be made that this nightmarish future has already arrived. The joke’s on us.

Circle Jerk | Fake Friends | The Connelly Theater | 220 E. 4th St. | Mon. – Sat at 7:30 p.m., Through June 25 | Streaming tickets $5-$50; in-person tickets $39-$79 | https://circlejerk.live/ | Two hours with two intermissions

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