Circle Jerk: Agitprop, Camp, and Bold Theatricality

Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley in "Circle Jerk," streaming live through October 23 and available on demand through November 6.
Fake Friends

If there is an upside to theater during the pandemic where performances are made to be streamed and consumed by audience members sitting alone or with just family, it’s that these limitations are inspiring exciting artistic explorations of the form. The latest example is the provocative and engaging “Circle Jerk,” a live streaming performance piece that will subsequently be available for on-demand viewing.

Produced by the theater collective Fake Friends, the piece tells the absurdist story of gay white supremacists who try to create an algorithm that will restore the power of an influencer and advance their agenda through social media. It’s a biting satire of our current culture, of queer identity, and of how information is disseminated and becomes “truth” in our age. Over an often-manic 105 minutes, this three-act experience is pointed in its criticisms and hilarious in its cultural references that come tumbling on top of one another. The title is not only about group masturbation but also about an obsessively self-reverential group striving to amplify its own biases.

Absurdist romp through social media recalls early days of Off-Off Broadway

What makes this piece so fascinating, however, is not simply the convoluted plot or even the hilarious multi-character portrayals by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, who conceived and created the piece, as well as Cat Rodriguez. (They are abetted by co-director Rory Pelsue and dramaturg Ariel Sibert.) The artful deconstruction of theatrical forms and social media practices — peppered with plenty of camp and intentionally down-at-heels production values — say as much as the content of the piece.

In the use of the medium, one can draw a straight line from Artaud, Genet, Ionesco, Albee, and Charles Ludlam — all of them committed to reimagining the theatrical form in their own ways — to this piece. In a world where images are “curated” and manipulated, reality is up for grabs. Despite its wit, “Circle Jerk” has the same undercurrent of anger and rejection of form that propelled much of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Along the way, there are plenty of gems to be savored as they burst out in rapid-fire pops — recalling the pop culture camp styles of both Ludlam and Charles Busch. Signing on to the show’s website, one is greeted by the phrase, “The great jerk begins,” a trenchant jibe at “Angels in America.” Others include the lines that “Method acting and fake news have the same source: Russia,” and that “an A.I.-generated robot-influenced conspiracy theorist” can ruin people’s lives. Creating one’s own personal brand doesn’t make it real, the piece points out, noting that one can’t just claim an identity within a group unless that group decides you belong. As the characters scramble to re-establish their canceled online presence through an artificially created meme character, “Circle Jerk” incisively critiques a culture where attention is a currency and value comes not from what one does but how one is consumed.

The piece is streamed from from MITU580, a location in Brooklyn’s Gowanus, and the audience is treated to backstage shots as the actors switch characters or go to the various locations in the space. We see the backs of the cellphones used for pieces of the video, as well as the ring lights that are essential totems of the self-curated. This approach is both utilitarian and serves as commentary — and one dares not look away from the screen at the risk of missing some well-conceived detail.

By this point in the pandemic, there’s no question that art and, especially, theater are being transformed even as they can’t be suppressed or put on hold. Just as the young playwrights of the mid-20th century often used the theater against itself to make artistic and political points, it’s exciting to see a new generation of what we now, sadly and without irony, call “content creators” use the engagement with — some might even say addiction to — online platforms as a tool of expression and criticism.

What these younger artists have in common with their progenitors is the radical assault on form intended to skewer the shallow shibboleths of an established form as a metaphor for a larger corruption of the spirit that results in a kind of death. “Circle Jerk” is angry, alive, hilarious, and challenging. It is cerebral and probably not for all audiences, and, while it offers no solutions, it boldly confronts reflects the anxiety of our time, which, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is a catharsis devoutly to be wished.

CIRCLE JERK | Streams live through Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. | On demand through Nov. 6 | $7-$55 at circlejerk.live

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