What is weird about Ross Peter Nelson's new play, Becoming Number Six, is that its premise is not strange. Internet surveillance already exists; usually we just don't notice it. If you use the internet, Google or some other web company already knows what you buy, where you go and who you know.
Despite its serious underlying message, Becoming Number Six is a comedic mystery that keeps the audience intellectually engaged. In this premiere production, directed by Harold Gervais for the Second Star Performance Collective, technology has enabled the government to track everyone's movements by monitoring computer and cellphone activity.
"Once we know your behavior, you're easier to manipulate," says a government bureaucrat known as Number Four (Donald Lewis Jr.).
The small cast keeps the energy up in this cerebral play. The story focuses on dry technological constructs, but the actors ably play out the human drama that ensues when government exerts too much control. There also is plenty of humor within the intrigue and the anonymity of online communication.
Daniel Zimmer created a minimalist set in the Nims Black Box Theatre at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. A couple of modern black desks, chairs, computers and a couch sit on an open stage — a sterile environment with no place to hide and few people to trust. Actors move from office to cafe to living room through invisible portals. The absence of barriers suggests a lack of privacy in this new world order — and constant surveillance.
Number Four is overseeing an investigation of Jeremy (Ross Quinn), a high school student known to frequent the dark web, networks inaccessible via traditional search engines. Jeremy uploaded documents for someone who goes by the internet identity Incognito.
Agents Lovelace (Andrea Watson) and Babbage (Andrew Gude) are computer nerds in plain black suits. Their lack of emotion is a contrast to the fears they invoke in average citizens. They repeatedly state that "tapping into computers is illegal" and requires a warrant. What they actually do is "traffic analysis."
Quinn, an idealistic computer whiz, trusts technology to expose corruption. "Information wants to be free," he says. His mother Stephanie (Lillian J. Small) becomes alarmed when agents appear at her front door and encourage her to spy on her son. Instead, Stephanie enlists her techie friend Julia (Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth), aka Tinker Taylor, to install VNC (Virtual Network Computing) to track Jeremy's computer use.
As a worried mom, Stephanie fears what they could find but above all desires to protect her son. The more internet savvy Julia knows all the tricks to trace Jeremy's movements. Unraveling the mystery of Incognito's identity drives the story as all sorts of digital devices are used to navigate the dark web.
"There are patterns, disturbing patterns of behavior," the agents say robotically.
In these times, government agents mining the internet for incriminating evidence simply derived from behavioral patterns seems frighteningly close to reality.