Regional Reviews: Chicago
Right to Be Forgotten
"They," in this case, includes more than just big tech. There are also government lawyers and lawmakers (and lobbyists) in this country, as we see in Right to Be Forgotten, an unexpectedly bright and funny new play about the nightmare at our doorstep, written by Sharyn Rothstein. Put it on a shelf next to Born Yesterday, in terms of learning to stand up for yourself. And the characters in this case are finally demanding some degree of control over what's posted about them, and how it's used online.
Americans in the cyber-age are represented by a beaten-down 27-year-old man and his very wily lady lawyer in this fun and harrowing 2019 play now at the Raven Theatre on Chicago's north side. But in fact, I've been describing this all upside-down. For though technically a comedy, Right to Be Forgotten is also a fast-talking "problem play" that knows its stuff, under the brisk and even brusque direction of Sarah Gitenstein.
Adam Shalzi is waifish and great as Derril Lark. He's shell-shocked and has a bit of an Edward Snowden look. Derril hopes to get his life back from internet ignominy through the courts in Lansing, Michigan.
So he needs a lawyer. Derril's name has become a slur, just as his life became an internet nightmare of slanders and lies. On chat boards everywhere, he is called a stalker, a sex-offender, and is frequently advised to end his life, as seen on the dozen phone-shaped projection screens that fill the Raven stage. But it's funny, I swear (the play, not the replies on the screens, which may actually require a trigger warning).
And all because, you see, ten years earlier, Derril Lark frightened a high school classmate by following her all around (a lot), repeatedly, against parental authority; but in this case he was hopelessly in love. In a one-sided affair. #scarredforlife
And it just happened to be at the beginning of those ten years when the internet was becoming a beehive of all kinds of personal disclosure, and getting more and more monetized by the hour. Derril tried changing his name, but got tracked down by (what seemed to have been) a horde of vengeful women online. Later in the 90-minute play we meet (in a dramatic scene) that former classmate, Eve, ten years later. She's played by lovable Jamila Tyler, who seems beautifully stunned at being asked for forgiveness. For, like, two minutes.
But in between all that, Right to Be Forgotten erupts, visually, with scene-connecting, doom-scrolling graphic projections on twelve screens, provided by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and projection designers Reese Craig and Liviu Pasare. Even without all their high-tech projections, the show is still very much kept alive by Susaan Jamshidi as Derril's sassy, whimsically aggressive young lawyer, Marta.
In Ms. Rothstein's delightful play, Marta coruscates with legal gamesmanship, and clambers up the battlements of big tech with (nearly) relentless wit and guile. Mr. Shalzi has it all down but is relegated to reading old poetry, outside of some better-than-average love scenes, and being startled quite a lot. And explaining the inexplicable. He is like an early silent film star, horribly trapped and exposed in everyone's virtual reality goggles: starved and yearning, though finding the occasional laugh in spite of it.
Marta is matched, neuron-for-neuron, against former co-worker Annie, who has left her own young lawyer's ideals behind her and gone to work inside the wealthy tech sector. In one of their several fast-paced (but occasionally prosecutorial) confrontations, Marta reels off a blistering list of some of the wrongs of the modern age, describing how social media is being paid to mis-direct pregnant women to anti-choice counselors, paid to keep voters at home on election days, and paid to sell private photos for the most modern facial recognition software, which still somehow gets black and brown faces wrong far more than half the time in government searches.
The tech lobbyist Annie is played by Lucy Carapetyan with a gladiatorial clarity that (in some strange quantum equation) is simultaneously elegant and ingratiating. If she were an old man, instead of a beautiful young woman, she might be Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars, the Peter Cushing character. And that same Annie is also having a highly monetizable affair with the fictional attorney general of Michigan, the married Alvaro Santos. He's played by sexy, anguished, and equally clever Kroydell Galima. And on the opposing side, Marta is asking Santos for help in Derril's case. I feel like I'm gossiping about a soap opera, but it all merges together with a desperate story and lots of thrilling tension.
In happier, non-confrontational scenes with Derril Lark, Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez is purely delightful, adding surprising new dimensions as the manic pixie dream girl Sarita.
It's an extremely well made "problem play," though–while we're still in the middle of the problem. Standing outside one pivotal convention ballroom moment, Marta explains the demographics of the big shindig that Derril will shortly invade: "People with dot edu emails (explaining) to people with dot gov emails why the most powerful companies on Earth should have only the teeniest tiniest widdle bit of regulation while still controlling everything the internet says and knows about you."
Still, the message from the citizens' end is crystal clear: too many people and relationships have been destroyed by all this, in a world that doesn't need any more destroyed people, or destroyed relationships.
Right to Be Forgotten runs through March 26, 2023, at the Raven Theatre, 6156 N Clark Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.raventheatre.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
Additional Production Staff"