Remember the first time you watched The Matrix? Remember that moment when you realized that—just like Keanu—you were only a helpless little pea in a digital pod, and that your “reality” was a mere illusion, force-fed you by a life-sucking mega-computer?
That revelatory thrill is, among other elements, what’s missing from Jay Scheib’s World of Wires, the final installment in the director’s Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems trilogy, a series of multimedia performances exploring virtual realities and the digital future. Billed as an adaptation of the Fassbinder film Welt am Draht (itself inspired by an early-1960s sci-fi novel), the piece feels mostly like a Matrix remix—enhanced by a healthy dose of silliness, but less swashbuckling and a little out of date.
So many levels of reality jostle for space here that it’s tricky keeping them straight, but roughly: our hero, Fred Stiller (Jon Morris), believes he’s running a prestigious experiment in simulation, using the behavior of “Reactional Identity Units” (translation: digitally fabricated people) to predict consumer trends and elections results. But when colleagues begin suffering mysterious migraines, then vanishing, Fred starts to suspect the disturbing truth: Could he, too, be a machine-simulated “unit”—a virtual guinea pig, hoodwinked into thinking he’s alive?
Scheib doesn’t take any of this too seriously, and at first, that’s a plus. Highly enjoyable slapstick abounds, as Stiller’s research team enthusiastically spills coffee, gropes each other, and wreaks havoc on the set. (A wall of cardboard boxes collapses moments into the performance, revealing a suite of wallpapered rooms and enough doors for a French farce.)
In the end, though, little is at stake in this drama of digital smoke and mirrors. This is especially disappointing because Scheib’s stage is wired up with plenty of theatrical tools of simulation—TVs display live feed of the performance, as Scheib himself trails the actors with video camera in hand. Live theater, paired with its onscreen echo, could have been an ideal setting for staging the collision of tangible and imaginary universes, but World of Wires never really gets there. This Reactional Identity Unit would have preferred a good intergalactic showdown.