If You Can Get to Buffalo: An Exploration of A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell
Written by Trish Harnetiaux
Directed by Eric Nightengale
Through May 25 at Acme Corporation
Imagine that I am speaking these words as I type them, that they are also scrolling up the wall behind my head and creating the scene, something that could look simultaneously like the ratty warehouse space of a Charm City hacker collective and the palatial, text-based "mansion" that existed in the collective cyber-imaginings of LambdaMOO, one of the internet's earliest social networks, which, in 1993 seemed like a utopia, and you will have a sense of what happens in Trish Harnetiaux's If You Can Get to Buffalo: An Exploration of A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell.
First, the unwieldy title: Harnetiaux's play is based on a Village Voice story called "A Rape in Cyberspace," and Harnetiaux uses the author of that piece, Julian Dibbell (whose online name is Dr. Bombay), as a narrative figure and main character, a job that the understated acting of Jesse Marciniak serves well. Dibbell's story is about the moment, in 1993, when the utopian early days of Multi-User Dimensions (MUDS) were brought to a close by the violent actions of Mr. Bungle, who used "voodoo doll" coding to "force" other users to perform sexual actions and was subsequently "killed" by the community, which was, for the first time, forced to develop rules.
Despite the inherent drama of the situation, it is not literally dramatic; there was, in the actual incident, no action other than typing. Of course, one could say that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was nothing more than moving a pen across a piece of paper. Nevertheless, the text-based nature of the action presents Harnetiaux with a fascinating dramatic challenge, one which, as it turns out, mimics the act of writing plays (which consists of directions and words that the playwright types and other people perform), so that the crimes of Mr. Bungle come to appear like a demented mirror of the act of the author, raising a potent philosophical question. "I AM RAPING YOU!" one character screams at another and then asks, "Did I rape you?"
I'm starting to think that the internet has become the primary subject for younger artists in all genres. I can understand why: If art is the doubling or reproduction of some aspect of reality which makes that reality appear in a different light, then the virtual world is a direct challenge to art. Still, it's getting a little old. Which is why I was happy to see that Buffalo is more about community than it is cyberspace-or rather, it uses the questions raised by the early days of cyberspace to investigate the nature of community.
The problem is, how do you stage it?
The basic dramaturgical trick here is that the characters move back and forth through the real world and the cybercommunity of LambdaMOO. Sometimes they type and narrate their actions, but then, as if mirroring what happens in the mind of someone who is so thoroughly engaged in that world, the characters move around inside the virtual "house."
In the past, Acme Corporation has made spectacular use of the second story in their space at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, so it was surprising that for this play, about the various chambers of the internet, they didn't use the upper level at all. But in the end, the closeness of the floor level served the action of Harnetiaux's play. The simple set is made up of three rough-hewn tables with keyboards, microphones, and a couple musical instruments, and another table, closer to the seat where the "Charlie Rose show," featuring Dibbell/ Dr. Bombay and Stephen Nunns as New Yorker Guy, serves to explain and comment on the action, in the manner of a Greek chorus. The Charlie Rose parts of the play provide most of the humor; the running joke is that Charlie thinks the internet is a fad. Nunns is particularly brilliant as a sweaty, jowly part-shy and part-snide New Yorker writer who posed as a woman online and engaged in "sexual activity" (which he enacts, followed by Katelin McMullin, who plays his wife, on the stage to uncomfortable and yet uproarious effect). But Mike Smith plays Charlie Rose as if he had never seen the show before, turning the somewhat subdued talk-show host into something more like Maury Povich, Geraldo Rivera, or Jerry Springer. (I don't know if it was based on an actual appearance on Charlie Rose, but it would have served the play better to have made it a different show, perhaps, or have played Rose down a bit.)
Daniel Douek was the real standout as Mr. Bungle. Large and bald, he looks something like I imagine the terrifying Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. He speaks philosophically in a strange, scrunched-up Eastern European-sounding accent, like a bloated and lobotomized Charlie Kaufman who combines innocence with menace. It seems like it wouldn't work and it is hard to say why Douek is so great in the role, but he is unforgettable as Mr. Bungle. I'd see the play several more times just to suss out his creepy affect a little more.
It is strange to think back on the internet as a text-based phenomenon, and Harnetiaux brilliantly captures the ambivalence of that moment right between the pre-internet world and our world, where we are inundated with it, drowning in it, allowing this now-ancient-seeming past to articulate the questions that are even more pressing today. As Dibbell writes in his original piece, "It asks us to behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll-and to try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process."
And though, in some ways, the prose of Dibbell's essay may seem a better vehicle to explore the questions now, 20 years later, there is something extremely powerful in having actual people with actual bodies perform actual actions in front of you on a stage. ■
To read "A Rape in Cyberspace," please visit villagevoice.com/2005-10-18/specials/a-rape-in-cyberspace.