From Friday, August 3 to Monday, August 6, Ars Nova, a Manhattan-based non-profit theatre company focused on supporting emerging artists, presented The Wikipedia Plays, a series of short, loosely connected plays inspired by 17 Wikipedia entries. The plays were written by Ars Nova's PLAY GROUP, who wanted to close out their inaugural year with an evening of plays incorporating work from all seventeen of the project's playwrights. They had the idea to use Wikipedia as inspiration, and, starting with our article on The Defenestration of Prague (according to the event program, "Because someone smart suggested it and no one knew what it was"), they followed the links on each page and randomly assigned each word or subject to a different writer, with the restriction that each play must be "inspired by a Wikipedia entry," be ten minutes or less in length, and contain a reference to the entry-word or phrase of the play to follow.
On Friday evening, I went to Ars Nova's tiny (~less than 70 seats) but comfortable Off-Off-Broadway performance space in Hell's Kitchen to take in the first showing of The Wikipedia Plays. Tickets were $11.50, including the $1.50 online purchase fee, which is about the price of a movie ticket in New York City, and significantly cheaper than a Broadway production (average ticket price: $75.77  ). The performance was sold out, and the audience was generally made up of people one would normally find at an Off-Off-Broadway play (rather than individuals like myself who were seeing the play because of the Wikipedia connection). As would be expected in an Off-Off-Broadway production, the stage was small and the sets minimalist, but had professional lighting and sound, as well as a large screen on the back wall where video and images were projected.
The plays were presented in the following progression: "The Defenestration of Prague" → "Bohemia" → "Prokop the Great" → "Democracy" → "Yale Law School" → "Bill Clinton" → "Global Warming" → "Uncertainties" (see Uncertainty) →
"Weather Forecasting" → "Troposphere" → "Turbulent" (see Turbulence) → "Golf Ball" → "Wooden" (see Wood) → "Particle Board" → "Stiletto Heels" → "Fetish" → "Castration Anxiety."
Overall the plays ranged from surreal to science fiction, from multimedia presentations to monologues. All but two of the plays were intended as comedies. The first play, "The Defenestration of Prague," had absolutely nothing to do with the historical event, instead focusing on an "Apology Hotline" where callers apologized to the operator for some fault or misdeed. One caller, on the verge of suicide over her failing marriage and still-born career, regretted writing her college dissertation on the historical Defenestration (thus connecting it to the subject matter of the first article in the chain), and in her lines, mentioned Bohemia (thus connecting the following play to the current one). All the other plays would follow the same pattern, briefly mentioning the word that inspired the play and the word or subject of the following play. During the brief set changes between plays, the article that provided inspiration for the prior performance would be shown on screen, zooming in on the link in the article that would show the title of the new play about to commence. But beyond these minor uses, the production really had little to do with Wikipedia itself, and with some plays, the supposed inspiration was dubious, at best. Where "Stiletto Heels," "Prokop the Great" and the wonderful "Particle Board" clearly used the inspiration provided by the subjects of the articles, some plays, such as the boring funeral gossip piece "Yale Law School" or the utterly dreadful stream-of-consciousness monologue of "Turbulent" seemed irrelevant to the "inspiration." As it was readily evident that the production was less about Wikipedia than about showcasing rising stars of the theatre world, I changed my expectations and looked at (and here, review) the plays as stand-alone works unrelated to Wikipedia.
Of the seventeen plays, "Particle Board" stole the show. Staged as a documentary retrospective on a long dead superstar comedian whose schtick was the use of a piece of particle board in his routine, the focus switched between the overly devoted narrator, interview subjects from the comedian's life, and delivery of the comedian's dreadfully hilarious one liners (which focused on his wood, and which always ended with the comedian hitting himself on the head with the particle board). In ten short minutes, we learned of the comedian's successes, bizarre sexual conquests, and eventual breakdown on American Bandstand and death to particle-board overdose. In addition to being such a beautifully silly piece, the play also clearly showed the inspiration of the subject: instead of just saying the word or mentioning the subject in passing like many of the evening's plays, this one used the inspiration, particle board, as the central facet of the focus character's existence.
Two other highlights of the evening were the dialogue-free plays "Weather Forecasting" and "Golf Ball." In "Golf Ball," a golfer strolls up to the tee, and readies his swing. Just as he's about to hit the ball, a loud, booming rap song plays out, told from the perspective of the golf ball. Utterly flummoxed, it only gets worse for the golfer when a crew of female hip-hop dancers dressed in full golf attire come out to dance to the golf-ball's driving rap. "Weather Forecasting" was a whimsical, wordless telling of the aftermath of an affair, a French crooner running away, while a woman frantically gets dressed and flys off on two umbrellas, arms wrapped in tin foil.
The one play that did directly reference Wikipedia was "Prokop the Great." In it, two laptop computers were put on center stage, with microphones near their speakers. The computers "performed" the play through speech synthesis, one computer Prokop the Great, the other Prokop the Lesser. When the Lesser asked the Great why they were fighting a battle to the death against Utraquists, Prokop the Great says that he doesn't know because "Wikipedia doesn't say." The ensuing final battle, told only in the computerized voices, was really quite funny and inventive, and was a good use of of the inspiration coupled with outside the box thinking you can only really see Off-Off-Broadway.
Most of the other plays were certainly passable for restricted short theatre: "Stiletto Heels" (more or less performed by stiletto heels in the vein of Sex in the City), "Wooden" (about a couple with a ventriloquist's dummy sexual fetish), "Troposphere" (about two people sent out on a space ship to populate a distant planet), "Global Warming" (about two self-absorbed yuppies and their encounter with a Greenpeace activist, which the largely yuppie audience seemed to thoroughly, if not self-knowingly, enjoy), and "Democracy" (about CIA recruitment, although with an unexpectedly kinky twist). Also of note was "Uncertainties": the only other dramatic play of the evening, it featured a sex-addict coming to terms with his own failings as a person. While it certainly had something to say and was well-performed, it felt out of place amongst the belly laughs coming out of the evening's other fare.
Overall, for ten bucks I got more than 2 and a half hours of inventive, funny, well-performed theatre with a great deal of variety between plays. By Signpost press time, the play will have come and gone. But should the producers at Ars Nova decide to extend the run, it certainly would not hurt to go see this play if you are in New York. Indeed, there are dozens of small theatre companies producing quality plays, musicals, and comedies throughout New York, usually off the beaten path, but usually quite good, so take the opportunity to watch one if you are visiting our great town.
Ars Nova, which shares its name with a stylistic music period from the middle ages, is a 501(c)(3) registered not-for-profit organization that produces theatre, music, and comedy events in its New York City performance space. Ars Nova's PLAY GROUP is a select group of emerging writers who gather every other week to share new works and gather feedback. Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project with nearly 8 million articles in more than 200 languages operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization.