In the prologue of “Circle Jerk” — a funny, campy, discombobulating hybrid theater piece that’s a spoof of both gay and digital culture (and also an example of each) — the Troll, in a bright blue shock wig and a dirt-smeared body suit, welcomes us in Bard-like rhyming couplets to Gayman Island, introducing us to its residents, all of them young, white, gay men, who over the next two hours will bitch and meme and scheme to take over the world.
The Troll was speaking right at me, having pranced up the steps of the Connelly Theater to just feet from my seat. This was a sharp contrast from our first encounter.
I first met this drooling, cackling Troll online, in October 2020. He was (and is) portrayed by Patrick Foley, who is also the co-writer of “Circle Jerk,” along with Michael Breslin; together they co-founded the Fake Friends theater company.
Like everything else at the time, Fake Friends’ “Circle Jerk” was an exclusively digital production. I was overwhelmed and confused by the sensory overload — the quick-change artistry involving three actors playing nine different characters; the rapid-fire live and prerecorded video; the barrage of political, sexual, social media and pop cultural allusions; the exuberant dancing; the general mayhem. But I was also impressed, because, unlike most everything else at the time, it made groundbreaking use of the medium. I evidently was not the only admirer. Eight months later, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama designated it a finalist – the first-ever digital production to be so honored.
Undoubtedly because of that high-profile endorsement, “Circle Jerk” has returned for a brief encore presentation — this time, in a choice of two platforms: either online, as before, or in-person (or as they put it, “in the flesh”) at the Connelly Theater through June 25.
As someone who has spent the past few years promoting the innovations of digital theater, I suppose it counts as a confession to admit that I like “Circle Jerk” better in-person.
“Circle Jerk” has always been a hybrid in more ways than one — vulgar and erudite; politically astute and politically incorrect; well-versed simultaneously in the online medium and in theater. The stage version is much like the online one. There is still plenty of live and prerecorded video (there are some dozen cameras and two videographers capturing the action) presented on screens placed on the stage; there is still the same chaotic and fanciful barrage. Its targets are still broad; its pot shots ecumenical. And, as in the online production, only the Troll’s monologues are captioned – a missed opportunity to advance accessibility in the theater, which would have been especially easy in this production, given the screens on stage. But a three-dimensional perspective, and action mostly contained within a proscenium, provides a greater sense of continuity and clarity.
Now we see each of the actors on stage, even when they’re changing from one character to another. We see Foley, for example, strip off the Troll costume, and don the costume of Jurgen Yiounoullis , a canceled right-wing provocateur and white supremacist clearly inspired by Milo Yiannopoulos, who says things like “First they came for the comedians, and I did not speak out—because I was not a comedian. At the time…. Then they came for the white women, and I did not speak out—because I agreed.”
We later see Patrick Foley turn from Jurgen into Patrick, a naïve newcomer smitten with Jurgen, even though Patrick is primly politically correct and “revirginized” (“In my early 20s all the men I loved started fucking each other, so I closed up my heart and my hole“) who just says no to drugs ( “I haven’t touched that stuff since I deviated my septum at NYU.” )
It is Jurgen who hatches a “gay colonial eugenicist plot” to purge the world of everybody but white, gay men, enlisting tech genius Lord Baby Bussy (portrayed by Michael Breslin) to merge Alexia (portrayed by Cat Rodriguez, and inspired by Amazon’s Alexa) with a meme machine to produce an AI social media influencer named Eva Maria (also Rodriguez). Things apparently go awry – Eva Maria turns from Artificial Intelligence into a human being named Kokoma (Rodriguez again) — although the story doesn’t seem to be the point of “Circle Jerk”; at least I hope it isn’t…because I still got lost.
Breslin also portrays Michael, who is Patrick’s best friend, who undermines him, and says things like “I don’t work in theater, I curate performance. The relationship to reality is totally different” and “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I am a co-conspirator for racial justice.”
Breslin’s third character is Honney, who is Jurgen’s house servant but also the king of Broadway message boards. His memorable remark about Broadway is one of the changes in the script from 2020: “Our Great Gay Culture is being attacked from every angle. A mezzo Marion Paroo, a Beanie Baby Fanny Brice…”
At such moments, “Circle Jerk” nods to a fabulous gay theatrical past – specifically the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company – even while it….jerks?….towards a tech-savvy theatrical future.
Online and at Connelly Theater through June 25, 2022
Running time: Two hours, including two intermissions.
Tickets: In-person, $39-$79; Online: (pay what you can): $5-$50
Conceived & written by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, in collaboration with Cat Rodriguéz and Ariel Sibert, who together, make Fake Friends.
Directed by Rory Pelsue
Video and co-lighting designer David Bengali and associate Ted Boyce-Smith
Scenic and props designer Stephanie Osin Cohen, sound designer Kathy Ruvuna, costume designer Cole McCarty, and wig and make-up designer Tommy Kurzman.
Cast: Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley and Cat Rodriguéz