The Media Create Valparaiso's Message
Valparaiso by Don DeLillo
a production by The Virtual Stage Co-op
at Presentation House Theatre to March 3.
Assistant Newsroom Editor
Imagine bringing television to a naive aboriginal group who had never experienced the medium before.
Turn the set off in the middle of a talk show. What are the chances they will assume you "killed" whoever was in front of the camera as the tube fades to black? Author and playwright Don DeLillo would likely say so. The U.S. writer has been musing on the paradoxes of American life through many of his 12 novels since 1971 and in Valparaiso questions the "reality" of experience, of life, when viewed through radio, television or the Internet.
The play itself is written to feel like a media experience with repetitive sound bites, cross-faded scenes, video clues and a "commercial" that is existential commentary. And then of course the theatre audience becomes a participatory television talk show audience for the entire second act.
We take this journey into media imagery in the company of businessman Michael Majeski, who, through a comedy of errors, ends up in Valparaiso, Chile instead of Valparaiso, Indiana. It's a cute story that could happen to anyone and the media want the details.
In a succession of interviews he recounts his story, developing and massaging his delivery as he becomes experienced in what is required and understands that he is the media's palette, a blank screen, "a stranger to himself." DeLillo's succession of media super-sleuths, whoever they represent and in whatever medium they work, ignore what actually happened in favour of creating their own personal version of the story. But as the questions become more ridiculous ("What kind of dentifrice do you use?" "What kind of sex do you have with your wife?"), a few clues emerge about the uglier truths in Michael's life.
Michael becomes, in DeLillo's words, a hero of self-disclosure who enters the almost holy world of TV oracle Delfina Treadwell in Act II. She doesn't want his words, so much as his soul ("We can't stop needing, everything is disposable."), and if he's willing to play along she will take him to the apex of his experience -- before watching him fall. It's not so much that she wants to create televised theatre for her audience, or that she even cares what Michael is hiding in his heart, she just needs the fix of being "on," of finding her own "heightened, brightened self."
DeLillo's argues that Delfina's life (and Michael's) is defined by the pixels that create her screen image, so it follows that she has no life when the TV is turned off. The danger to society, of course, is that if we, the audience, remember either of these characters, then the pixels themselves must have taken on a life since these fabricated lives continue to live on "in the air."
The Virtual Stage Co-op (who appear to be a spin-off from Vancouver's excellent Way Off Broadway theatre company) under the direction of Michael Schaldemose has achieved a remarkable level of ensemble work anchored by Andy Thompson's Michael. Every actor is right on the mark and the production, on a limited budget, is technically excellent.
And yet I found Valparaiso to be more interesting on reflection than in the experience. That is part of the danger of heightening reality. When theatre borders on the ridiculous without the intention of satire, there are no emotional hooks to hang on to. Still, that's DeLillo's problem, not Virtual Stage's. If you are old enough to remember Bucky Fuller ("The medium is the message") or know that you prefer "real" characters, this play may not speak to you profoundly. For Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers, Valparaiso is must-see theatre .