'World of Wires' challenges audiences at the ICA

“Did we create Disneyland, and fill it with plushies to prove that we are not plushies?” asks actor Mikéah Ernest Jennings in one the more poignant moments of “World of Wires.” “Wires,” a play directed by Jay Scheib that ran at the ICA until September 22 and was based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s science fiction telefilm “Welt am Draht,” puts themes such as agency and creation in a whole new light. Despite depending on an overused sci-fi plot device—that our lives are just computer creations—“World of Wires” is a haunting satire of society’s over-dependence on technology. Through his unconventional direction, Scheib examines the inherent artificiality of theater—the idea that in many productions, playwrights, and actors want to convince the audience that a choreographed, scripted piece of art is in fact real life.

You might say that “World of Wires” is a Pinocchio story gone wrong: Fred Stiller (Jon Morris), the co-inventor of “Simulacrum–3” (a machine that is capable of transferring the consciousness of an individual to a wholly human-mediated fictional universe) comes to the understanding that he has actually been conceived to operate in such a system. Stiller then seeks out a way of leaving his own simulated world in order to become a “real person.” However, he realizes that he is in danger when he discovers that people who have had the same revelation as him—such as Simulacrum–3 co-inventor Professor Fuller (Winsome Brown) and the Head of Internal Security Ivana Ng Ivanova (Ayesha Ngaujah)—have been “deleted” by their anonymous Gepettos. As the plot unfolds, Scheib captures it on a hand-held camera, and the resulting footage is projected on screens surrounding the action on stage.

The performance begins with a huge white screen, namely “the fourth wall.” Usually, the fourth wall is a concept that is meant to explain the division between the stage and real life, but in ”World of Wires” this separation is physical. The screen blocks the audience’s view of the stage, and on it is projected the live-stream video of the action on the other side of the wall. The screen consists of a few dozen storage boxes regularly arranged on top of each other as well as an actual projection screen reaching to the same height. The image is projected on both. At one point, one of the boxes is knocked out of position and the actors are able to see the “real world” beyond the fourth wall. Consequently, several actors gaze at the audience through the hole, now well aware of the fact that there is a world outside of their fake, scripted existence. Minutes later, the fourth wall gets demolished by the cast.

After this clever pun on the nature of theater, the artificiality of whatever is transpiring in the production is exposed. From two overhead plasma screens, the audience may continue to watch the live-stream footage or the actors onstage. Two walls of mirrors flank the action on either side, so most of the time Scheib is in his own movie, endlessly multiplied on both mirrors allowing his reflection to be caught on camera. The show plays with this notion of the hollowness of theater. For example, bags of a red liquid substance are conspicuously spread by a hand over a shot body under the watchful eye of the camera.

In this oddly eclectic play, romance is replaced by impulsive sexuality and characters engage in lengthy debates on potato chips. As a result, “World of Wires” amounts to one big freak-show with an onstage “auteur.” In a nod to “The Matrix,” Tanya Selvaratnam ’93 warns us about the pervasiveness of the artistic invention that we call reality when she says, “I wouldn’t eat the blue one if I were you.”