“PRIMITIVE” PEOPLES have it right: A photograph of a person can indeed steal his or her soul. We “sophisticates” are only now learning this big-time in the age of the selfie.
That may not be the message behind Gustavo Ott’s La Foto: A Selfie Affair, playing through February 25 at
Washington’s GALA Hispanic Theatre, but it was certainly my takeaway. Once that image is out there, well, it’s out there, never to be corralled again. And once the pieces of the universe realign themselves to make way for that image it’s nigh on impossible to go back to the way things used to be.
As a devotee of Law & Order reruns, I’m pretty inured to selfie damage—college girls baring their breasts at a drunken frat party and suffering the consequences (try explaining that at your first job interview); an accidental snap of two people who shouldn’t be together. But that’s not exactly what’s on the mind of Venezuelan playwright Ott, who in 2016 gave us Señorita y Madame, the epic battle between 20th-century beauty titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
In a way, Ott’s conceit is quite a bit more disturbing, because this time it’s Mom who is guilty of taking the very naughty selfie and sending it to a long-lost (married) boyfriend, to show him what he’s missing. Of course the image goes viral, sent to friends by the man’s son, who thinks it’s sexy and cool. And of course Mom’s daughter is humiliated when schoolmates figure out who the woman in the selfie is.
As the play’s slogan has it: It’s not the world in your hands . . . it’s you in the hands of the world.
Friendships unravel, a marriage disintegrates, a child is mortified. But Mom insists loudly that the photo was about her, and only her, and she had the right to take it and to send it out. The more the world around her collapses, the more she digs in her heels.
Bad Mommy! And yet. . . . she’s played with such pained ferocity by Luz Nicolás that it’s hard not to feel her anguish at having to pack it in. No more romance, no more cozy conversations in bed. Nothing more than standing in line at the supermarket, declaring herself old, and then . . . death.
Yes, rage, rage against the dying of the light and all that—but maybe don’t do it with a smartphone in your hand. Yes, listen to your daughter when she teaches you how certain apps can, um, enhance your physique. But also listen to her when she, young but wise in the ways of social media, begs you not to do what you’re aching to do.
In the end, I have a feeling that it’s ourselves we’re trying to reassure, that, yes, I was there, I was part of the world. Photos have always done that, but the smartphone has given us the camera equivalent of a semi-automatic—and we’ve trained it on ourselves.
“La Foto: A Selfie Affair,” GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC; galatheatre.org; 202-234-7174. Performed in Spanish with English surtitles. Playing through February 25.