Shakespeare often used masks and disguises in his plays to get his characters to reveal truths about themselves to one another. But if Instant Messages had been around when he was alive, he might have written something like Matt Moses' comedy of errors The Cloud, now playing at HERE under Wes Grantom's clever direction. In this tech-savvy satire of modern romance, Moses makes smartphones and tablets the masks behind which his characters hide.
The story follows 20-something Chris (Teddy Bergman), a theatrical set designer who has just been hired to create the scenery for a university production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. His girlfriend, Katie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), is obsessed by her own project designing a new members-only app that allows subscribers to post naked photos of themselves. But when Katie discovers that Chris might be fooling around with his theater coworker Sandy (Polly Lee), she poses as Chris in an I-M conversation and gets Sandy to divulge secrets about her wayward Romeo. When Chris gets wind of this, he fires back with a conversation to Greg (Ryan King), Katie's ex, who also happens to be Sandy's personal trainer. Not surprisingly, confusion and recriminations ensue, spiraling the four characters into a series of revelations that could end up damaging everyone's relationships for good.
Throughout the play, Chris, Katie, Sandy, and Greg engage with one another via cell phones, computers, and tablets. Director Grantom gets us into the Cloud, that ethereal electronic realm where texts and e-mails live, with Driscoll Otto's creative lighting and Josh Millican's computer-bleeping sound design. Whenever the conversation takes place in the Cloud, the stage is bathed in a cool, wintry blue, unlike the warm, yellowish glow of the physical world. One of Chris and Katie's kinky things appears to be sexting each other while in the same room. Once Grantom has us on board with that opening scene, we're ready for the Cloud shenanigans that follow.
The four performances are top-notch, and often knee-slappingly funny. Feely-Lehmann portrays Katie as a driven, at times Machiavellian woman who can rejigger her moral compass whenever there's an opportunity to exploit. Bergman does a nervous, guilt-ridden, bungling cheat to a T, and King impresses with his ability to metamorphose from a smarmy, unctuous gym rat to a likable, marriageable sweetheart. Lee is the most fun to watch. Her onstage presence is as natural as can be, and her Sandy, even when behaving naughtily, possesses a charm that makes you hope she's going to find love in the end.
The Cloud sometimes plows roughshod over bumps in the storytelling. The play strains credulity with the epic texting that takes place on cell phones. Characters interrupt one another mid conversation in a way that's common when speaking face to face, but nearly impossible while thumbing a smartscreen. Neither has Moses tried to re-create the jerky, offhanded grammar of text-speak. In general, we should be grateful for that, but one can't help but think a comic opportunity was missed in avoiding it entirely.
In the end, however, we grant Moses poetic license because of the fun he pokes at society's need to tether itself to technology. "Cell phones make us more human," says Sandy. "Love the phone. Worship the phone." Though such remarks have a satirical ring to them, in the end it is technology that allows for honest communication between these four people stumbling their way through the Cloud toward love. That's a metaphor worthy of Shakespeare.