Capital T Theatre's Song About Himself

Walt Whitman's spirit logs on to social media with imagination in this Mickle Maher drama

Missed connections: Katherine Catmull (l) and Ken Webster
Missed connections: Katherine Catmull (l) and Ken Webster (Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre)

Imagine one day logging on to your social media site of choice – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatHaveYou – only to find no one there. No other posters, no commenters, not even a troll, just a vast electronic void in which the only voice is yours, desperately pleading for someone, anyone, to talk to you.

If the incessant chatter of our perpetually plugged-in age makes that scenario hard to picture, let me direct you to Hyde Park Theatre, where Capital T Theatre's spare yet fully fleshed production of Song About Himself will conjure it for you, and vividly. In the play's hazy future, the internet has been broken and unpopulated for so long that the Web has degraded into the Weed, and people have grown so isolated from one another that their speech has devolved into mumbling. There, a woman named Carol has learned of a site called YouSpake and worked hard to gain entrance (learning to play jazz on a clarinet to meet its password requirement) in hopes of finding people with whom she can "back-and-forth," only to discover once she logs in that she's the sole person there.

The setup calls to mind one of those episodes of The Twilight Zone in which someone has been mysteriously separated from the rest of humanity and is seized by the existential dread of that detachment. And Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell generates a similar disorienting disconnection and chilling unease from it. His actors traverse the empty space in the center of Hyde Park's new in-the-round arrangement in lines that keep them at odd angles to one another, their eyes never meeting. Instead, they peer intently into the darkness, searching for contact that never comes, and as time wears on, this lack of connection grows increasingly unnatural and unsettling. The theatre's intimate interior feels as immense as the Antarctic wastes.

Carol's aloneness in that expanse is made palpable by Katherine Catmull, clutching a clarinet and bearing the beaten, haunted look of a refugee. She makes clear how Carol had seen YouSpake as a shelter, her safe harbor, and its emptiness is a betrayal that sparks in her a fury. She vents to the site's only other presence, "the unnamed host or hostess," YouSpake's electronic moderator/gatekeeper, but this entity has its own agenda: getting Carol to "lengthy-post" in the grand oratorical style of the Weed's glory days. So it deflects her complaints and cadges Carol into posting about herself. (Jason Phelps' Host/Hostess may be the most pleasant-voiced and devious A.I. since HAL 9000.) But its plan is stymied when another human slips onto the site: the awkward, inarticulate mail carrier Tod, who can't be understood by YouSpake's voice-recognition software when he speaks but can be when he sings (Ken Webster, not singing but pushing himself to a level of deeply affecting vulnerability we've rarely seen). Tod's arrival feeds Carol's hopes for communication even as she fears he may be a creation of the Weed, a virus masquerading as a human.

And so, as Carol, the Host/Hostess, and Tod do their disconnected dance across the space, the question of identity comes to loom larger. Who are we? And how do we connect with another person if we can't answer that? We see how hard it is in a future world of perpetual slush and mumbling, where no one speaks because no one reads and no one reads because no one writes. But salted throughout Song About Himself are shards of poetry by Walt Whitman – the title itself an allusion to his verse – which reminds us of his eloquence in celebrating the self, his brilliance in considering every aspect of his own mind and body and using that self-understanding to expand his appreciation of others, of society, of the cosmos. Playwright Mickle Maher, who's been known to mash up unlikely elements to great effect (superheroes and Shakespeare's The Tempest in Spirits to Enforce, the Bush-Kerry debates and Albert Camus in The Strangerer, both produced by Capital T), mashes up Whitman and social media to show us how the words of the poet – words words words in musical, explosive, thrilling combinations – may unlock the mystery of identity. With his words and Maher's in the care of the three actors and director who made Maher's There Is a Happiness That Morning Is such a pleasure, this show sings, reassuring us that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Song About Himself

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512/478-7529
Through Nov. 19
Running time: 1 hr., 25 min.

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Capital T Theatre, Mark Pickell, Mickle Maher, Katherine Catmull, Jason Phelps, Ken Webster

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