That the character of Paul Abacus was created in 2009 – three years after TED talks became available to watch online – is no surprise at all. That people believed in the construct of this ‘public intellectual’ until 2012 – when he was revealed as a fake at Sundance Film Festival – is a good indicator of the quality of the parody. It’s a slightly dated flurry of intentionally flawed intellectualisation, but it’s more insidious and persuasive than it appears at first glance, thanks to a knockout performance from Sonny Valicenti as Abacus the manic preacher.
Verbally, this ‘visionary’ has some real corkers, giving spurts of irritating and astutely parodic opening questions.
What really springs to mind is Joaquin Phoenix’s period of meta method-acting in I’m Still Here, a ‘documentary’ in which he played a fictional version of himself trying to become a hip-hop star – even appearing on Letterman in the process. The effort from Early Morning Opera feels similarly experimental, and it throws up some interesting implications.
Beyond the ostensible aims of the show – to convince its audience that a world without borders would be a better world (and then a concession that this would cause its own problems) – there are several meta layers.
Onstage, behind Abacus, is a set of images projected onto huge screens, sometimes displaying Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map, sometimes the range of visible and invisible electromagnetic radiation and, for much of the performance, live feeds of Abacus himself, from a variety of angles provided by Steadicam operators (and dancers) John Luna and Annie Saunders. They accompany him on and off the stage at either end of the show, and prowl around balletically in between.
The live images of the talk reflect the changing emotional tenor of the piece – still in calm periods of explanation, frantic during Abacus’ fortissimo yelling – and, more subtly, they also flip between ordinary and mirrored display, discreetly altering the way we perceive the self-mythologising character before us.
The way we consume information on screens – which Abacus labels ‘the new opiate’ – is manipulated by the overwhelmingly large and chaotic projections, and it’s surprisingly effective; Abacus reels off metaphor after simile while spurious but zippily animated stat parallels whiz round the screen and half-convince us of his weird arguments.
Verbally, this ‘visionary’ has some real corkers, giving spurts of irritating and astutely parodic opening questions: ‘Have you ever had a lightbulb moment?’; ‘What’s infinity?’; ‘Can you feel all those electrons spinning?’; ‘Can we all imagine the same thing at the same time?’. By the time he yells ‘WAKE THE FUCK UP!’ you do start to think Abacus might in fact be for real.
And actually, what prevented me from really relishing this technically excellent show is the straightness of the parody. We are the only audience – there’s no other barometer for the pressure Abacus exerts on his listeners – and I found myself resenting my concessions to Abacus on various points, but never dangerously won over to his lop-sided thinking, despite Sonny Valicenti’s superb performance.
His wide-eyed ideas-hooligan is deeply charismatic, his series of non-sequiturs weirdly compelling. Even so, I’m not sure the personality is quite enough by itself; the spoof might hit even harder were it to provide a more palpable sense of danger at the manipulative force these cult-leader ‘visionaries’ and their empty rhetoric are capable of exerting.