by Carlos Aranaga
Setting an urban myth to the live stage is always an endeavor fraught with challenge. In particular when the story is one as boggling as that of the reputed time traveler, John Titor. Experimental or no, the elements of theater remain unchanged from the time of Periclean Athens: engage the audience, induce suspension of disbelief, deliver the intellectual and emotional goods, and then stand back as your viewers undergo their own personal experiences of catharsis from the drama you have produced. In our parlance, it should blow your mind. Cyburbia Productions at George Mason University's premiere run of Time Traveler_00: A Story of John Titor (April 7-10, 2004), three hours from start to finish, is a strong effort to convey that story. The production includes shining moments of performance and staging, yet at its conclusion has yet to grab you by the gut the way the Titor story does when first you stumble upon it on the screen of your computer during some lonely late night web surfing. The Titor phenomena has elements of science fiction. It reads like a cleverly crafted alternate history tale. One wonders whether it wasn't concocted by an enterprising writer of speculative fiction trying to see if he couldn't successfully create and release a meme in the wilds of cyberspace. If so, the Titor story is one that succeeds in those objectives. This story is sticky.
When I first came across it I came back to those sites again and again until I knew as much about it as there was to know. Is it possible? Sure. Anything is possible, if you are of a mind-set shaped by the likes of Philip K. Dick. The idea of a time travelling soldier from a post-nuclear war 2036 sent back to salvage specific archaic technology lost to them is entirely Dickian. It'd make a good movie. In fact Cyburbia's production is billed as a live movie. Blue screens abound and rear-projection tableaus move us from 2036 to 1975 to 1990 with the ease of a sensurround PowerPoint presentation. There are some strong acting performances set against this staging. Digital artist Prince Rozario practically steals the show with his portrayals of John Titor's unit chief, Sarge in 2036; in a musical number chillingly conveying the link between Titor's timeline and ours, Homeland Security World; and as a Bangladeshi in a Florida fruit decontamination crew in 2036 singing Bengali folk songs with his fellows at the end of their long days in the fields.
Translating any work to the stage or screen, whether it is science fiction, historical, or political polemic is a challenge in abridgement. What do you leave out? How do you convey premises that take thousands of words and images to develop on a web page or a book to an audience with conciseness and power of expression? In the case of science fiction, as any viewer of Mystery Science Theater knows, when suspension of disbelief is not achieved, what you end up with after a piece of dialogue that goes "using two microsingularites in close proximity to each other, it is possible to create, manipulate and alter the Kerr fields to create a Tipler gravity sinusoid" is more likely to evoke sniggers than astonished awe. The Titor phenomena is web-based, and therefore word-based. There is too much of it in this play, which is why it runs to three hours. Were the story as widely known though as say, that of Nixon in China or the ancient Egyptians, one could have done a Philip Glass or John Adams on it, but that clearly wouldn't work here where this tale is only just now beginning to gain wider currency. A little tighter scripting perhaps, more show me, don't tell me I think could have helped ease those in the audience who weren't already familiar with the story into suspending their skepticism, or would have produced some hairline fractures in comfortable worldviews.
That said, there are powerful moments and performances here. Joshua McCarthy also shined, as Titor's IBM pocket protector slide rule packing grandfather in 1975, and later as several of Titor's online chat buddies in 2000. It is those chat transcripts that form the basis of the whole Titor legend. The eerily detailed descriptions of how he came to our world, of the probable chain of events facing us as we slide towards fascism, civil war, and nuclear conflagration, and the photos which can be seen online purporting to be evidence of temporal dilation at work, of the time machine, and even xeroxed pages from the operating manual of the General Electric C204 Gravity Distortion Time Displacement Unit built in 2034. You can see all of that online. When we are not being told all this, shoulder-surfing John and his netpals in their late night chats, we are are treated to some outstanding original musical numbers, like Shop While They Drop, where John and his year 2000 parents and his three year old self trip the blue light fantastic in Florida Stuff*Marts as we see projected the dropping bombs and rapelling commandos that in fact form the buttress of our vacuous consumption-led petroleum-dependent economy. The period of civil and nuclear war which Titor warns us is the almost inevitable consumation of our prolfligate lifestyle, called by his time Hell's Kitchen, is stunningly evinced by Kelly Wilson singing an aria from Richard Strauss's Elektra with flames super-imposed and skeletal specters from Heironymous Bosch flashing by on our retinas. The dippy hippies of 1975 were overdone. I was there, we didn't talk like that, but the decontam crew in 2036 was very well done, as we eavesdrop on one of their long days of labor to rebuild the world we bequeathed to them.
My hat is off to writer/director Kirby Malone. His resume includes works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and work on a stage adaptation of Philip K. Dick novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Hard to not look forward to a play by someone who teaches cyberpunk and performance studio. This is a great effort and anyone with an opportunity to see this production should take it.
This is a cautionary tale indeed. Even if, as is most likely, the whole Titor thing is an elaborate hoax, still the future he predicts is one we could easily descend into if everything remains unchanged. History has its own powerful momentum. Like the Titanic, it is hard to turn on a dime, but it can be turned. Titor tells us that there is only a two percent divergence between his timeline and ours. If so, we have some work ahead of us.
Carlos Aranaga is a life-long SF connoisseur, world traveler and man of letters, born in the Andes, and who at various times has occupied temporal coordinates in Bangladesh, Bolivia, India, and Maryland, USA.
Time Traveler_00: A Story of John Titor
Washington Post Review
John Titor A Time Traveler's Tale - The Novel
Online Encyclopedia Article - John Titor