Refresh is a kaleidoscope of dysfunction. Don’t look at any of the individual elements too closely – you’ll find they’re just simple, colored blobs – but put them all together and watch them spin around and the result is dazzling and a little dizzying.
The play is set at the computer desk in the bedroom of Matthew Schott, a teenage boy with a Megaman sticker on his laptop and the Wii logo all over his boxer shorts. “Matthew Schott” is the creator’s real name, and we can only hope that some of his story is at least a little bit fictionalized.
Maybe it doesn’t take place in young Schott’s bedroom – possibly it all occurs in Schott’s mind – or maybe it’s actually set on the stage of Caos on F where it’s being performed, because Schott is here to tell us this story for a particular reason.
He sits alone behind his glowing laptop, with his fuzzy goatee and rumpled shirt, portraying his mid-teenage self, between two speakers that occasionally pipe in what may be reflections of his twenty-something year-old future or who knows what else. Lights shift, and Schott shifts tone, and eventually you can get some bearing on what the different threads of his story are, but – again – the overall effect is more important.
Schott’s teenage self is a portrait of the modern American Internet-raised teen. Like all teenagers, he doesn’t know who he is yet – but the Web is all too eager to throw expectations at him, in the form of porn, and vulgar, trash-talking online game sessions, and faceless Facebook interactions. It’s sometimes scary to witness his character wander down the dark aisles of the Internet, sometimes knowingly funny, and sometimes as touching and sad as it always is to see a young person adrift.
The main plot, such as it is, concerns Schott’s pursuit of Ilia, a girl at his school, through strictly digital interactions. It’s a testament to Schott’s writing that we can get a sense of Ilia as a confused and growing human being in her own right, still trying on her own personality, despite never appearing onstage (Schott reads her instant messages and emails out loud when they arrive). The farther he delves into this relationship, and all the hyperlinked emotional detours, the more he comes apart.
The more honest Schott is, the better it all works. On too many occasions, the writing takes an obvious sidestep for a broad joke about Schott’s many geeky interests (ranging from RPGs to Dragonball Z) or male obliviousness, and briefly suggests a weaker, blander and less courageous kind of show. Luckily, it never stays in that zone for too long, and Schott is enough of an engaging, open-hearted performer (with the timing and precise vocal chops of a skilled comedian) that those digressions are easy to forgive.
Less forgiveable, though still fitting in as a few more colored blobs in the kaleidoscope, are Schott’s equally obvious moves into portrayals of the “Nice Guy” trope. Whereas the teenage self he is portraying mostly walks the fine line between self-awareness and utter hopelessness, when he goes on these self-critical little rants, the writing hand of adult Schott seems to poke through.
Refresh is not an easy, clean tale of a kid who learns a lesson or a morality play about how the Internet turns boys bad or anything like that. It is brave but resolutely non-judgmental throughout – except during these distracting self-criticisms.
Refresh: Stories of Love, Sex, and the Internet
by Matthew Schott
at Caos on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
Director Julia Katz wisely avoids many clichés of portraying the digital world onstage – there are no projections of what Schott is looking at, and he rarely clicks on the keyboard, rather relaying what’s ‘happened’ online as if it’s beamed directly into his brain. Katz and Schott keep things moving briskly, so we never have too much of a chance to get confused. Even the missteps are quickly left behind, letting us tumble once again around inside the troubling, funny, and all-too-familiar world of the teenage boy’s Internet life.