To those who know me off this blog (and probably a number of you on it), the news that I’ve been a geek since before it was cool isn’t going to come as any big surprise. Partly because of that, and partly because of a project I’m working on that uses disruptive technology as the axel for its narrative, I went to see Mangella by Ken Ferrigni – a cyber thriller about a man (Anthony Manna) trapped in a logic loop with his computer Gabriella (Ali Perlwitz), his aging, dementia-ridden father (Bob Austin McDonald), and Lilly (Hannah Wilson), the hooker who’s come to save him from it all.
Mangella is well-produced, with Perlwitz’s representation of the “clingy” computer played at perfect pitch as she squawks about incoming emails and suggests everything from eBay to porn in an effort to monopolize her human’s attentions. “I think you may have a friend request from a high school acquaintance with whom it will be good to make contact again,” she says, and, “Did I mention there are updates! You have several friend updates!” Perlwitz slides easily from the camp of a fantasy video game to the serious business of hacking Vietnamese websites to the playful naughtiness of having her dust vents cleaned.
Meanwhile, Anthony Manna’s performance as Ned is realistic: cerebral and fussy, frustrated and well-intentioned. His father’s illness gives Ned a convenient excuse for his illegal hacking activities, fending off medical bills and paying the rent, and gives us both the contrast and a real-life analogy to living life on the internet. Yes, we are shown how Ned can pass quickly through multiple environments in his online world, fighting battles as his own superhero (and at times even donning a Mexican wrestler’s mask), but we also see him struggle to bring about a cure for his father’s dementia in a manner Alex de Large would find familiar – which, in turn, lets us understand his need to escape.
Ferrigni definitely has a handle on his geekese, and what’s more the actors have come to a point where it rolls effortlessly off most their tongues. Perhaps the most impressive example of this is late in act two, when Gabriella makes a prayer to the Blue Screen of Death. Weaving technobabble with the kind of grammatical structure and language one expects at a table-top session of D&D, Gabriella beseeches one last chance from an XP machine’s version of the grim reaper.
Major plot point spoilers ahead.
Part of the play’s central conceit is the idea that Lilly is stuck in some kind of time-loop, and in a “Time Traveller’s Wife”-esque way, she therefore lives her life over and over from the age of six up to the age of 28, always striving for the one day that she and Ned will meet. She tells him this happens over and over again, and in the first moments of this revelation – which comes midway through the play’s second act, and up until which Lilly’s presence is both disorienting and confusing – I wondered if Ned might be a character in someone else’s game – perhaps Lilly was just another player, one dream-level up.
Is our protagonist a gamer dreaming he’s a man, or a pixelated construction being played? Ferrigni is careful not give us a clear answer on this, but there are moments in the play, such as the moment where Lilly tells Mangella that he sometimes feels she looks familiar, when one has to wonder if the connection that ties Lilly to this moment is to not Ned, but to his father.
In the end, Mangella is a play that opens up many new ways to think about avatars – the ones in our minds, the ones we create online, and the ones we envision for other people, to name a few varieties – and how as people it is easier for us to project our image of someone else onto them than to listen to who they really are. Simultaneously, it is a reminder that “actual” reality, as opposed to “virtual” is not consensual and does not need our permission to happen around us – but that we can still be active participants in determining how our lives move forward in time.