FAKE FRIENDS Don't Let Fake Friends Make Bad Theatre

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Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley in "Circle Jerk" | Photo: JJ Darling
January 12, 2021 7:00 PM
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Features

There was never any way I was going to be able to keep up with Fake Friends. Catch up with them, I did, on a Zoom call last Saturday morning. But anyone who has seen the theatre group’s latest creation, Circle Jerk––the theatre/film/meme-dump they pulled off live (!) last October, now streaming on-demand––would understand that keeping up with them is a different story. Much like the play, the team behind it packs about two dozen facts, jokes, and half-truths (opinions, if you will) into every phrase they speak.

Taking place on “Gaymen Island,” Circle Jerk sees an alt-right party boy, his tech-savvy best friend, their incel houseboy, a Catholic actor and his curator frenemy devise a meme-based disinformation campaign. The endgame? Create “an AI-generated mass self-cancellation White lib heterosexual suicide pact” so White gays can keep partying while the world busies itself with things like ethics and accountability. It’s a dizzying, hilarious work that frighteningly captures the post-truth zeitgeist.

I spoke with writer-performers Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Cat Rodríguez (who, along with dramaturg Ariel Sibert, make up Fake Friends), and director Rory Pelsue about identity, memes, and introspection in the age of disinformation. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

“This project has had such a journey, in terms of figuring out what exactly it is doing and what exactly we want,” Rodríguez said. “It would be so much easier and satisfying to punch down and not put any of ourselves on the hook. It’s so much easier, whether in Twitter discourse or in the show, to create a false distance that is borne of a kind of comfort that allows us to say, ‘That’s not us,’ rather than examine the roots of what those issues are. I think it’s an uncomfortable, but honest thing, to ask what is titillating or sexy or appealing about a certain mindset.”

Rodríguez, the only woman in the cast, plays both the ‘far-left’ Catherine, who dubiously rebrands herself as ‘Kokomo’ after an Instagram-based personal awakening, and Eva Maria, the AI meme-machine the gays create for their nefarious purposes.

Cat Rodríguez and Associate Costume Designer Alicia Austin | Photo: JJ Darling

“The play is very well put together,” Pelsue said. “Every character has been ‘cancelled’ in some way; their pain is very real to them. It’s so much a war of how people think and ideologies and what ideas are valid.”

Working out how to play the characters’ visible evils without diminishing the human weaknesses that created them provided its own set of challenges, the team said, but was essential to the project’s success. 

“This is one of the more overtly political contemporary pieces I’ve worked on,” Pelsue continued. “I came in with an idea of political theatre meaning we distance ourselves from the characters. Looking at the text, though, if the actors don’t judge their characters from the outside, then it makes the engine run a little bit more.”

The performers, all of whom play several characters throughout the production––including some named after themselves––spoke of the importance of recognizing their own problematic aspects.

“That would help us not punch down,” Foley said. “It’s scary to be like, ‘There is a White supremacist digital terrorist in me, let’s just slap an accent on him.’ I think there’s this pervasive fear that everyone has––and that has become so real with social media––of being cast out of your given community.”

Notions of community and identity serve a crucial role in the play, as the characters flit in and out of intellectual, social, and professional circles to their own benefit. The team members, each of whom holds a Master’s Degree from the Yale School of Drama, took Circle Jerk as an opportunity to challenge their own academic backgrounds.

“Academia was very critical to our thought process and research,” Breslin said. “Originally, [my character] Michael was a professor, not a curator. I think we should distinguish between actual knowledge and made-up history, and I do think the more we move forward in this post-modern era of, ‘Nothing has meaning,’ we’re starting to learn that we do have to draw a line between what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

Breslin, whose character at one point tells another, “I am implicitly problematic, but you are explicitly problematic,” spoke of the ways language can be weaponized or, perhaps dangerously, appear nonsensical.

“I think a lot of Internet discourse that I’m a part of can seem to have words and epistemological structures that seem fake to someone who is not part of the community,” Breslin said. “I see myself looking at certain words or structures on Fox News or Reddit and think, ‘I don’t recognize that,” but they’ll root it in the history of the Enlightenment and the founding of America. It’s such a complex thing, but we were interested in showing a leftie version of these far-right, fake news, mad scientist liars [with Circle Jerk].”

Rodríguez’s eponymous character, Catherine, might be the best example of this phenomenon, as she spouts off pseudo-woke explanations for her shifting identity. The writer-performer says she pieced together the character’s distorted state of mind from YouTube and Instagram accounts that promote vague ideologies.

“A lot of the Catherine/Kokomo stuff comes from real accounts from real people who consider themselves Nican Tlaca—which is a ‘real’ (fake) thing,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a distortion of history. What’s so nefarious and contagious about it is that there is history and truth in it—the foundation does incorporate some things that are recognizable and that you could Google. Basic bare bone facts create a kind of skeleton, but the musculature that grows around it is warped.”

Nican Tlaca, a contentious term used to describe Indigenous peoples by the Mexica Movement, which advocates for the removal of European descendants from the Americas, is constantly wielded by Rodríguez’s character as a deflection of her White guilt.

“The idea of Nican Tlaca as a kind of indigenous community, given the fact that colonization, etcetera etcetera, is a way for White Latin Americans to use that history of colonization to put themselves on what we now recognize as the losing side of history,” Rodríguez said. “Yes, these histories really did happen, but there is a refusal to recognize the complexity [of the situation]. It’s like lopsided attention––‘yes, my people were XYZ and actions were taken against them, and my other side, which I also have and who did these horrible things, I’m also the victim of.’ It’s an unequal reconciliation of history and it’s a conclusion that allows one to be pushed further into a sense of righteousness and zealotry.”

Catherine/Kokomo’s identity is not earnestly addressed until the play’s third act when, after two acts of White gay, ahem, circle jerking, her character provides a radical shift in perspective.

“I think, for Fake Friends, we get a bit impatient with a single dramatic or theatrical world,” Breslin said. “The third act is the most distorted part of the piece, and where the ship starts to turn around and look directly into the three performers. That’s why it’s important that we perform into the camera and not to each other. A lot of the themes that come up in the third act are deeply personal.”

The third act, at which point any semblance of normal theatricality goes out the window, includes front-facing camera performances, lip-syncing, Meryl Streep’s Big Little Lies scream, and live-action memes.

Patrick Foley and Michael Breslin | Photo: JJ Darling

“We were in this space of, ‘Ugh, the third act, the third act, the third act,” Foley said. “I picked up a book on the Wooster Group and was flipping through it, and Michael thought, ‘What if we were all on phones?’ And then we started writing it via storyboarding and talked about visual storytelling as a way to generate the narrative.”

The Wooster Group, an experimental theatre company known for their audiovisual components, provided the team a suitable inspiration for not only form, but content.

“I like theatre that is engaged with intellectual discourse, so that’s the stuff that we make,” Breslin said. “I feel like this academic/not academic thing that has come up so much recently is so fascinating, especially in the theatre world. It’s like––books can be your friend, and I think a lot of theatre makers are always reading but then, somehow, when it gets presented to the world, a lot of that research is buried or not put on display.”

The “About” page on Circle Jerk’s website––created by Fake Friends’s Ariel Sibert––features a wealth of resources and inspirations, ranging from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, to stills from Frankenstein and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to side-by-side images of A Chorus Line’s kick-line and Nazi soldiers goose-stepping.

“So much of the language in acting training is so hyper-anti-intellectual,” Foley said. “So much of it is about, ‘You’re too much in your head, don’t use your brain,’ and fetishizing this knowledge of the body which I think, in many ways, is great, but can also be problematic. There’s a credo that [Fake Friends has] that everything is basically an adaptation; so for any idea that you have, there is a lineage to be found. That process of identifying your predecessors and inspirations is incredibly generative, artistically and personally.”

This lineage of culture and knowledge is essential to the production, which integrates GIFs, Plato’s theory of imitation, and Britney Spears’s Instagram Stories––a meta-commentary on White gays by the very media through which their identity is constructed.

“I think that what people might call high-low is something that is always at play in our process,” Breslin said. “So, yes, we have de Tocqueville on the table, but we’ll also ask Patrick to do something really stupid to make us laugh. Both of those things are happening all the time, and I think that collision of actual knowledge and viral media has really revealed itself on Wednesday [January 6th, 2021].”

The recent storming of the US Capitol, and the endless cause-and-effect loop of ideological memes it encourages, loomed large over the conversation—something the team was eager, if dismayed, to discuss.

“I wonder about the memed relationship between the show and watching people desecrating the Capitol with crazy costumes and grins,” Pelsue said. “It reminded me so much of Jurgen and Bussy in the basement, like, ‘The world shuts us out and we’re gonna tear it down’––this total joy of theirs that is certainly reflected in the show.”

Jurgen, a Milo Yiannopoulos-like troll, and his friend Lord Baby Bussy are two of Foley and Breslin’s characters––vapid vacationers who, upon being cancelled online, decide to retaliate against a world they feel has unjustly maligned them.

“These people are wearing QAnon sweatshirts next to a Nazi t-shirt next to a Confederate flag while storming the Capitol,” Breslin said of the storming’s visual impact. “It feels like the invasion of disinformation memes, and that’s something that is frustrating to watch because, well, it could be regulated. How did these tools become so available, and then so stoked by the President of the United States?”

The insidious power of memes, a cornerstone of Circle Jerk’s rhetorical power, is something the team agrees has not been properly reckoned with in a society that is prone to sharing before thinking.

The crew of "Circle Jerk" | Photo: JJ Darling

“Memes work because they’re visually simple,” Rodríguez said. “There’s a false simplicity with how they run, but there’s often a greater cultural knowledge where they’re picking up on a kind of element that makes it into something else. Someone pointed out that during the Confederacy, that flag never made it to the Capitol; the Confederate troops were stopped. On Wednesday, the flag did. There’s a kind of meme-ness in seeing that flag be marched through the Capitol; it’s a kind of meme-ing of American history.”

Despite the parallels between the White gay behaviors satired in their production and the very real vein of White supremacy displayed during the Capitol’s storming, the team is adamant against treating that mentality as mere trolling.

“I want to distance the word trolling from what happened on Wednesday and use words like terrorism or sedition; but there are markers of trolling, like the ‘QAnon Shaman,’” Breslin said, referring to Jake Angeli, a rioter wearing a fur-covered headdress who was prominently featured in media coverage of the attempted coup.

“It’s important to remember that he is an actor, or was at one point in his life––he has a Backstage.com profile,” Breslin continued. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘This is literally Circle Jerk’; this relationship between acting (which is, itself, a kind of lie), trolling and what happened on Wednesday… I mean it’s a theatre-makers nightmare and heaven.”

The public reckoning with disinformation and toxic ideals that has happened in the wake of January 6th is one the Circle Jerk team hopes will be thorough and productive.

“I hope within that kind of awakening that there is space for self-reflection rather than the easy thing of ‘Well, now I disavow it,’” Rodríguez said. “Because––cool, cool, but why did you avow it? What was the appeal and why is now too far? That is a harder but more productive conversation to have, because it requires people to be honest with themselves about what was actually operating under all of this, and what was being appealed to.”

Circle Jerk is streaming on-demand at https://circlejerk.live through January 17.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.