Stage Door Review 2022

The Complex

Saturday, January 22, 2022


written by Chantal Forde, directed by Mandy Roveda

It’s Not a Pivot Productions, Next Stage Theatre Festival, Toronto

January 19, 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29 & 30, 2022 online

“In The Complex there is always more than meets the eye”

The Next Stage Theatre Festival includes two livestream productions, one of which is the very cleverly designed interactive digital game entitled The Complex. Though thoroughly conceived of as a game, the production has a strong theatrical component in that actors play distinct characters who through their words attempt to convince an audience that they are worthy of an honour. This plus the show’s subtle self-awareness of its own limitations as a digital construct help justify the show’s inclusion in a theatre festival rather than a video festival. Besides this, participating in the show is a whole lot of fun.

The press release for The Complex explains its premise: “Set in a dystopian world after years of upset and division, The Architects have devised a procedure to overcome the imperilling disintegration of society: a cross-section of survivors will be chosen to come together and, under the watchful eye of the anonymous Chamber, must collaborate to save humanity through the selection of a worthy candidate to lead us all to better days”.

Audience members have the option of participating in the show in two ways. They can either join a group called The Community or one called The Chamber. In The Community audience members create avatars and interact with the characters played by the actors and with other patrons and discover hidden intel. They connect to the show via Gather with their cameras and microphones on. In The Chamber audience members experience the show through a livestream feed and make their opinions known through polls and through chat as moderated by The Host. They connect to the show via Zoom with their cameras and microphones off.

Because of the gaming nature of the show, no two shows will be alike and people’s experience of the show will be quite different depending whether they participate as part of The Community or The Chamber. I deliberately chose to join the show as part of The Chamber in order to avoid creating an avatar and other more video game-like aspects of the experience. My review is therefore written from this point of view.

The show begins with a ten-minute-long loop of images of destruction indicating natural and political disasters, We in The Chamber are given various exercises to help us learn how to use chat to communicate with others. Eventually, The Host (Steve Hobbs), known as The Keeper in the programme, appears and guides us through the initial set-up.

Supposedly, The Architects, the mysterious group who has somehow attained the power to determine how everything we experience is organized, have chosen 50 people one of whom will be the future ruler of the new society they intend to establish in the newly built Biodome. (A look at the the webpage for The Complex reveals that The Architects are actually the show’s three co-creators – playwright Chantal Forde, digital designer Jessie Fraser and director Mandy Roveda.)

Over many polls the 50 have been whittled down to only five candidates. The Host gives the candidates, or “prospects” as they are called, a chance to introduce themselves. They are, in order of appearance, Barbaro (Tsholo Khalema), Arkle (Frannie McCabe-Bennett), Phar Lap (Terry Tweed), Kinscem (Duncan Derry) and Zenyatta (Tiffany Martin).

After the introductions the same question about an essential topic is put to each of the five and we in the chatroom judge their responses. The Host then asks us, based on our first impressions, about which two we would like to know more. A poll determines the two and we have a chance to see two of the prospects in videos outside the context of their present campaign. One of the videos, taken without the prospect’s knowledge, proves damning and we are polled about who should be eliminated from further consideration.

As the show continues many began to perceive that the whole process was manipulative and arbitrary. We in The Chamber become rather too comfortable in thinking our votes control the action, so it comes as a surprise when we learn that The Community will have a vote to decide a major question. (Instead, we should wonder what it was like for The Community to have our votes decide so much.)

By the end, at least in the performance I experienced, we left with the impression that determining the best person to lead us in the future is no better than it is at present. We find that all the prospects are flawed and that we ultimately have to choose the lesser of two evils. That fact, however, is part of the genius of The Complex. It begins with the idealistic notion that a utopia can be made from a dystopia but leaves us wondering, given human nature, whether that is actually possible. More intriguingly, The Complex allows us to entertain doubts about the  whole process of selecting a leader in the way The Architects have chosen.

All this makes The Complex much more than a game. One could imagine the The Chamber side of the show as an in-person presentation. As long ago as Shear Madness (1963) by Paul Pörtner, an audience vote decided the outcome of the show. Here there are more polls and more votes and the chatroom could be replaced with actually discussion. As far as one could observe The Community, activity  there seemed much like that in John Krizanc’s Tamara (1981), in which audience members followed different actors through a drama. What digital media allows is for the two types of dramas to play simultaneously and for the events of one to influence those of the other.

Mandy Roveda has encouraged the actors to give performances that support the growing feeling of ambiguity we feel toward the selection process. Key in this is Steve Hobbs as The Host. Hobbs deliberately pitches his character as more of a game-show host than as a serious political moderator. His tone of insincerity, along with his consumption of champagne in a supposedly impoverished world, make us feel dubious about what both he and we are doing.

Among the prospects Terry Tweed and Duncan Derry’s characters come off as the most centred and articulate. It’s all the more disturbing, then, when we see that their air of concern may be only a façade. Tsholo Khalema and Frannie McCabe-Bennett’s characters initially seem too angry and inarticulate to be good leaders. Yet, as the action progresses they show us that our first and even second and third impressions may be wrong. The same is true of Tiffany Martin’s character who at first seems the most fully sympathetic of the five, yet who is also oddly inarticulate. Martin makes it appear that her character is disturbed by the process that has made her rise so high and is the first to raise our own doubts about the system. Yet, as with all the others, Martin shows that her character also has a very different side.

The Complex is a digital theatrical experience that is well worth indulging in at least twice – once from the point of view of each of the two groups of participants. How the actors present their characters is integral to the action, and we should not miss the significance that our view of The Host and the five prospects changes with nearly every speech they make. The Complex is an ingenious game about the fallibility of perception disguised as a competition of ideals, which is willing to underline its very artifice in order to destabilize us even more.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: (from top) Tsholo Khalema, Franny McCabe-Bennett, Duncan Derry, Terry Tweed and Tiffany Martin; Steve Hobbs as The Host. © 2022 It’s Not a Pivot Productions.

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