Incognito Mode: not stealthy enough

Studio 58 is presenting Marcus Youssef Incognito Mode: A Play About Porn

Lauchlin Johnston’s pixelated set is the star of Incognito Mode: A Play About Porn.

Incognito Mode examines porn—while wearing rubber gloves. Amazingly, given the subject, there isn’t a millisecond of eroticism and there’s no real immersion in shame. This might be a dangerous thing to say of a show about porn, but I wanted it to go deeper.

To create the script, writer Marcus Youssef worked with the fifth-term students at Studio 58, who helped to devise the show and who are appearing in it. The script is loosely structured on the relationships among a group of friends who graduated from high school not that long ago.

In that bunch, there’s a couple whose names are Jason and Jasmine. He’s addicted to porn. But all we really see in this narrative thread are Jason’s fruitless attempts to address the dreaded subject and Jasmine’s understandable frustration at his inability to do so. What people seem to forget in stories about addiction is that there’s a lure: pleasure. There’s some kind of overwhelming intoxication. Abandon. And that’s the point. Until your self-loathing slaps you in face and makes you long for oblivion again.

But Incognito Mode is content to stay on the surface. It never goes deeper than Jason’s hesitation.

Fortunately, the actors who are performing this material—Moe Golkar as Jason and Ella Storey as Jasmine—are better than the material itself. I got tired of Jason’s inability to come clean, but I bought the underlying fear. And Storey’s Jasmine is so authentically in the moment that an image of her listening is one of my most potent memories of the evening.

There are other pleasures to be had in Incognito Mode, too, including a scene that reflects on the way that available imagery affects our sex lives. Emma (Paige Fraser) wants to get busy surrounded by candles and flowers. Her boyfriend Mike (Solomon Rise) is cool with that—and he wants her to dominate and peg him. Go Mike! Fraser and Rise play the scene with beguiling shyness and it’s written with a refreshing lack of judgment.

Despite its bulletproof analysis, much of the rest of the material feels like a scattershot and predictable survey of porn-related ideas. Bisexual Amy (Julia Munčs) is horrified by the misogyny of the majority of porn, for instance. But all we see is a video of Amy watching some violent videos and registering her distaste. Given how important Amy’s point about misogyny is, this easy dramatization and the lack of original thought almost feel lazy.

There is some queer content in Incognito Mode. A couple of characters express gratitude for the availability of queer sexual imagery, which offers a reassuring mirror to isolated queer folk, including queer youth: “You exist. Your sex exists.” But, again, this support of queer imagery is a statement rather than an effective theatricalization.

There’s a gay character named Dylan who sometimes performs in porn—and Dylan is unapologetic about it, bless him. But the script never embraces Dylan’s sexual heat; the more developed scenes concentrate on an experience of violation, implicitly taking a more cautious position than Dylan does. And all of these scenes feel talky and abstract.

Part of the problem, I think, is that, after an initial stab at this work during Studio 58’s Risky Nightsseries in 2018, the students asked Youssef to create a piece that was more story-driven and less testimonial. The result is a kind of half-baked naturalism in which ill-defined characters discuss issues rather than leaping into them. When I was watching the show, I wasn’t aware of the development process, but I found myself longing for a more testimonial take. I wanted to feel like the performers and I had more skin in the game—so to speak.

In her staging, director Chelsea Haberlin sometimes has the actors moving in stylized ways that made no sense to me, but she deserves credit for getting consistently honest performances from her 11 actors.

I’ve been saving the best for last: Lauchlin Johnston’s set is excellent. Studio 58’s low-ceilinged space is awkward, but Johnston makes the most of it with four panels that are divided into squares, like pixels. The squares light up individually and together in different combinations of colour and the actors shift the panels around to create a variety of architectural spaces.

If only the script were as fully realized.

INCOGNITO MODE: A PLAY ABOUT PORN Devised and written by Marcus Youssef in collaboration with the fifth-term students of Studio 58. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. Coproduced by Studio 58 and Neworld Theatre.At Studio 58 on Friday, October 5.  Continues until October 14.

Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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