part of the
New York International Fringe Festival
For some loneliness can be a debilitating condition. But for Dawson Nichols it’s no impediment at all, at least as far as Virtual Solitaire is concerned. His play, which is appearing at the Players Theatre as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is all him, all the time: He’s the sole performer, the playwright, and also the director. Yet so effectively does he occupy each of these roles that the work never feels like less than a group effort.
This is a more significant achievement than might first be apparent. Isolation and desolation, in worlds both physical and not, are the centerpieces of this play, as each of its several characters struggles to determine, define, and (if necessary) remedy his relationship the people around him. Their difficulties with this are exacerbated by neither they, nor those they’re concerned about, necessarily existing. So whether they’re connecting with anyone else, and if so on what level, may or may not matter, and may or may not have a lasting impact on others. Only the passage of time, and occasionally peeling away the layers of synapses behind which many of them are hiding, will make the situation plain.
While everything is unfolding at first, however, you may find grasping the whos and whats of Nichols’s show more difficult. Only one thing is clear: A young man named Nathan has agreed to loan his brain to some programmers so they may calibrate the new video game they’re designing. Unfortunately, Nathan’s mind is already so fried from years spent living in digital fantasy that he loses control of this new murder-mystery simulation and begins imagining it — and himself within it — in a myriad of different forms that only serve to further complicate his already incomprehensible perspective on “life.” The sheer number of players, the scope of the levels of fiction they inhabit, and the overall sparseness of plot make following the action a challenge at times — in film terms, picture Inception fused with The Matrix as filtered through Memento.
Luckily, Nichols so effectively differentiates the story’s various personalities that they will never confuse you. The ever-shrinking Nathan, the bickering technicians, and the swath of intriguing loners within Nathan’s mind, all of whom gradually begin reflecting their host more and more, are striking and complex creations. Though Nichols sometimes makes too much of a show of switching between characters, his transformations are so total in both voice, body, and attitude that you never get tired of meeting someone new or learning more about a previous acquaintance.
Nichols proves no less adept in his staging, relying on only a single pair of VR glasses to set the scene — and he abandons those after the first few minutes — and a pair of black contact lenses to make Nathan’s plight even more unnerving. Decked out in a black T-shirt and shorts, and with the most basic of lighting cues and no external sound effects, Nichols fashions an expansive universe that’s always inflating and collapsing at the same time: Technology grants Nathan access to new vistas even as it cuts him off forever from old ones, and this forces you to consider whether this kind of progress is empowering, dehumanizing, or both. Nichols gives you plenty of reasons and opportunities to make up your own mind.
But this is a show about more than science. For all its experimental techniques and forward-thinking subject matter, its genesis traces back to 1995, and it emerged in more or less its current form in 1997; back then, the lengths to which people would, or could, go to escape themselves and others in an existence making ever greater demands on them was a terrifying fantasy. Now, and one suspects forever, it’s a terrifying reality, as our constant exposure to others, in life and online, has made us less secure and more alone than ever. Nichols doesn’t suggest many solutions, but his questions, and the razor-edged cleverness with which he asks them, make Virtual Solitaire an immediate if unsettling pleasure.