According to the Mayo Clinic, 45 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly.” Smartphones and social media have given today’s youth the opportunity to be more connected than ever, and during a pandemic, the importance of technology cannot be understated. However, the never-ending stream of social media can leave many feeling isolated.
Eric Coble’s “Ghosts in the Machine” directed and visually designed by Brad M. Carlson of Truman State University, tells the story of eight seemingly unconnected high school students. When they begin to get strange texts from numbers they don’t recognize, the students discover that their cell phones may have minds of their own. While trying to solve the mystery of the bizarre messages, they discover just how disconnected they are from their school community and find out that there are so many friendships to be made if they can look past their cellphone screens.
Although originally written to be performed as a staged play, the script for “Ghosts in the Machine” adapts to a Zoom reading flawlessly. There is a bit of a lag in the beginning, as one who is accustomed to seeing a show live must adjust their perspective to allow for the enjoyment of a newer form of theatre. However, it quickly becomes clear that this production has used all of the resources available through Zoom and editing to create as cohesive a theatrical experience as one might find in sitting in a theatre. Some aspects of the show were perhaps even enhanced by the opportunities that a Zoom production allows. A large amount of dialogue in the play takes place through texting. When the play is performed live, the texts are intended to be shown through projections, but Zoom allows the audience to clearly see the texts as they would appear on a cellphone. There is no need to worry about sitting in the perfect place to see the projection screen or struggling to read the far-away text.
Despite not having a true set, Carlson’s design uses backgrounds to show where the characters are and create a complete “stage” picture. However, unlike many Zoom productions I have seen, the backgrounds are not the same for every character in a scene. Several different photos, taken at different angles, and perfectly formatted on-screen create clear, full pictures of the high-school hallway, locker-room, or most impressively, the cafeteria, during which all eight characters are on-screen at the same time. Carlson also plays with lighting and color effects, using a duller, grey-toned pallet for the testimonial scenes, and a brighter, more life-like pallet for the scenes that take place in the high school. The audience even gets to see the Zoom equivalent of a spotlight. During significant moments for characters, the production slightly darkens all the Zoom screens except for the speaking character. This allows the audience to still see the reactions of the other characters while highlighting key moments. The play also includes a soundscape created by Jacob Baxley that will make the audience feel exactly as if they are listening in on a conversation in a crowded high-school hallway.
The breakout star of this production is Bonnie Jeune as Melissa, the friendly, but friendless, shy outsider. Jeune’s performance perfectly encapsulates the heart of this play. She creates a character that is so excluded that she at first can’t believe that anyone would want to be her friend. Even in the more tense moments of the play, every move she makes tells the story of someone who is simply happy to be a part of something. Her presence stands out in the group as a kind-hearted, lovable character who just needed to be given the chance to be a good friend.
“Ghosts in the Machine” is a stellar selection for a pandemic-era production. Brad M. Carlson has created a performance that is visually appealing and entertaining while being safely produced through Zoom. The play also tells an important story of the way that technology can tie us together or keep us apart. We are collectively accumulating more screen time than ever, and it is important for us to remember when technology has its benefits, and when it has limitations. “Ghosts in the Machine” allows us to appreciate technology, while also looking forward to a time where we can go back to making connections outside of our screens.