There’s an absurdity to modern existence that’s difficult to articulate. The more you use apps like Twitter, the more the lexicon of the internet becomes part of your real-life vocabulary, while all the inanity of reality is reported about and read on social media. You can call it an ouroboros loop, but it feels a lot more like a circle jerk, with people passing the same nonsense back and forth trying to find meaning in it. This is the central theme of Circle Jerk, a theatrical experience created by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, in collaboration with Ariel Silbert and Cat Rodríguez. Originally presented virtually amid the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, as directed by Rory Pelsue, the show still operates in this liminal space in its newly debuted in-person staging. It’s a piece of “extremely online” fiction about the way queer people navigate the world.
The story takes place on Gayman Island, a private retreat for rich gays and a hunting ground for two “White Gay Internet Trolls” who want to “uncancel” themselves by canceling everyone else, figuratively and literally. The show’s three actors (Breslin, Foley, and Rodríguez) embody multiple characters, including Michael and Patrick (stereotypes of brash gay men), Jurgen (a white supremacist meme creator), Lord Baby Bussy (a racist gay influencer), Honey/Hun (a gay incel with a penchant for Broadway), Alexia (a virtual assistant who’s an obvious reference to the Amazon tech), Ava Maria (a meme-creating artificial intelligence), and a literal troll who serves as a Greek chorus. Describing the plot succinctly is a Herculean endeavor; put short, these personalities are thrown into each other’s paths, resulting in a farcical journey of self-discovery and self-immolation amongst characters without an ounce of self-awareness.
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The Fake Friends theater group ties the insanity of their productions to the world itself having lost the plot. This is mirrored in the aesthetics of all their works — not just Circle Jerk, but also shows like This American Wife, an in-depth riff on the Real Housewives phenomenon. They operate within a transmedia space, expertly incorporating the mediums they explore and poke fun at, from TikTok and Facetune to GIFs to ASMR videos, for the sake of bold political statements. Their virtual productions have been experimental hybrids of film and theater, often rejecting realism in favor of camp. It’s a potentially groundbreaking aesthetic, incorporating the visual language of the internet into both stagecraft and cinema.
Reviewing the initial virtual run, the New York Times described Circle Jerk as “a lot,” which may sound dismissive but isn’t inaccurate. (Fake Friends and executive producer Jeremy O. Harris proudly quote it as a compliment.) Much of the play — the comical plot which it loses track of, the onslaught of witticism and references, the abundance of “woke” hypocrisies it calls out — is, in fact, A Lot. In part this stems from its roots in the Theatre of the Ridiculous. (Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep is a core influence.) But that “muchness” is also the essence of what it’s trying to capture about contemporary society.
For the show’s new in-person production, the audience must divide their attention between the stage and a host of screens surrounding it. The story will bounce from a live conversation to a pre-recorded video, or from a direct address to a reenactment of a TikTok. One minute we see an innocuous selfie, and then bold text against a colorful background loudly declaring the politics of its taker. The characters’ use of ceaseless references in dialogue exaggerates but honestly conveys the way friends pepper inside jokes into their conversations. It’s an accurate reflection of how, say, a group DM can instantly pivot from erudite political discourse to ragging on a dumb tweet.
Even the new production’s hybrid form, being performed both for a live audience and those watching it being streamed, feels like an extension of Circle Jerk’s themes. This balancing act admittedly makes it feel less polished than the virtual-only 2020 run, with the crew and cast torn between performing to the room and to the cameras. But the more inelegant moments, like a wig haphazardly thrown on or an out-of-frame costume change that the live audience witnesses but the at-home viewer might be thrown by, become part of the charm. This play is deeply interested in how people perform in different spaces, so witnessing slips like these becomes a new facet to latch onto.
Just as the actors are constantly bouncing between personas, the visuals resist categorization. By the time the third act rolls around, the stage/screen is split into three iPhone-shaped boxes with the actors in front-facing camera closeups. This is code-switching on both a technical and performative level, aesthetically embodying the essence of queerness. The characters oscillate between naive and leery, woke and problematic, cis and trans, artificial and sincere. Circle Jerk is acutely aware of how nonsensical our various personae are. The white supremacist profits off bad memes, while the “woke” gay boy challenges people on their racism while also sleeping with the white supremacist. The messiness and indulgence link with how malleable and idiotic our own identities can be, and the script isn’t interested in scolding the audience about any of this. The company is as dedicated to celebrating the complexity of queerness as they are to depicting its complicity in oppression. Circle Jerk holds up a mirror, then smashes it and gives each viewer a piece to hold. Sure, it might cut you, but isn’t that what representation is all about?
Circle Jerk plays online and in-person at the Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through June 25.