Searching for Signal

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday February 20, 2016

'Searching for Signal' continues through March 4 at Club Oberon
'Searching for Signal' continues through March 4 at Club Oberon  (Source:ToUch Performance Art)

To paraphrase a popular song, this is a little ditty about Jack and Kat, two ambitious 20-somethings who ride the same train but keep missing important connections.

"Searching for Signal," a production by ToUch Performance Art playing now through March 4 at Club Oberon in Harvard Square, loses no time in letting you know this is a play about Millennials. The announcements beforehand clue you in, if the title hasn't already: You're invited to keep your phones switched on, and even to take photos of the play in progress. (Just silence those phones, and no flash photography, please!) After all, what would a Millennial be without his or her smart phone in hand?

And there they are as the story begins, riding a train on their morning commute, the six-person ensemble, scrolling on their mobile devices, each one plugged into a wider word of shares, likes, and playlists. In the real world, their bodies sway in time to the rocking of the train; in their minds, though, there's an untrammeled freedom that's expressed by elaborate, perfectly executed choreography as the characters suddenly slip into dance.

Though all six performers are featured in the opening number, and others that follow, the story mostly follows Jack (Rob Brinkmann) and Kat (Misha Shields). They don't know each other -- yet -- but they are less than one degree of separation apart, both in the physical and online worlds. Jack runs a startup called Jack Trade, a little concern that's failing despite Jack's ferocious efforts to keep it alive. While Jack buries himself in the business, his college friend and business partner, Derek (Gabriel Nesser), has a healthier outlook: You need a life to balance your work, after all, and there is such a thing as dating, especially when you're young. That's Derek's message to Jack as the two hang out at a bar, Jack still pecking at his phone as a game unfolds on the TV.

Across town (or, at least, across the stage) another gathering is in progress: Kat, her best friend Margot (Melissa Geerlof), a young woman named Jess (Taylor McMahon), and their "gay best friend" Liam (Alex Smith) chat excitedly about, among other things, romantic prospects. Kat has just broken up with some guy named Chris; Jess has just gotten engaged.

Liam and Jess are minor characters, but they're made more colorful by the way their dialogue is sprinkled with the phrase "hashtag," as though they were putting every word onto their Twitter feeds. Kat and Margot aren't drawn as broadly, but they are every bit as plugged in: When Margot decides it's time for Kat to move on and find herself a new man, the two set about getting Kat a profile on a dating app called Spark'd. The inevitable parade of off-putting profiles, text exchanges gone wrong, and bad dates ensues, with the ensemble donning various costumes and personae to comic effect.

Movement is the main form of shorthand used here, and it signifies thoughts and feelings, with the ensemble doing some exhilarating work. But the most passionate pieces belong to the key players: Catching sight of each other on different occasions, Jack and Kat each glide into fraught episodes of dance that throb with urgency and yearning. In a memorable sequence, Jack struggles with a stylized boulder -- a large dodecahedron -- like the embodiment of Atlas by way of Sisyphus, and Brinkmann sketches just how much like each of those mythical heroes Jack is in his struggle to keep his company aloft while pursing the tantalizing prospect of success.

Shields dazzles in a couple of sequences, bright and vivid with graceful physicality, as Kat goes through a disastrous rebound relationship with a player named Josh, during which she neglects her responsibilities at work and falls out of touch with even her closest friends. It's a Facebook post by her ex, Chris, that kicks her into this drastic place; it takes an even more shocking Facebook post to pull her out again.

No fewer than eight flat screens stationed around the performance space at Oberon show us this second kind of shorthand, that of the electronically connected world through which the characters move. Text messages flash on those screens, as do notifications from Spark'd, ominous automated notifications from student loan lender Sallie Mae, and letters from Kat's boss that are both formal and shaming in their tone and wording. The world is a tough place for Millennials -- such has been the social and economic stewardship of older generations -- but this simple story (clever in many ways, but very slight and really only there to hang the dance pieces on) finds a place for hope.

The show's real strengths -- aside from its talented cast, who turn in one moving and memorable number after the next -- lie with the creative team. Marissa Mae Roberts and Elizabeth McGuire created the show; Justin Paice's lighting meshes well with the story, the choreography, and the music. Original music is credited to the Gypsy West, Peck, and Alex Giorgetti.

"Searching for Signal" plays at Club Oberon Feb. 25 & 26 and March 3 & 4. For tickets and more information, please visit

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.