Little Brother on Stage

Al Billings

Originally published on Open Buddha

Little Brother - Opening Pose

I went with friends on Sunday night to see the Custom Made Theater Company’s adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother. As most of my friends know, I am a fan of Doctorow’s work in general, finding him to be both an excellent writer but also someone speaking on things that I care greatly about as someone who works at Mozilla on open source and keeping the web as open as possible. I am also a particular fan of this book, having given a copy to my own daughter (who is now 15) to read because I think it addresses a lot of important issues in our current times. When I found out that a stage version of the play was being done and done locally, I was excited and determined to see it.

Josh Costello did the adaption from Cory’s book and directed the play as well. We actually had a Q&A after the show so he spoke about it a bit. While he was in contact with Cory, both for the obvious legal reasons and wanting to keep him in the loop with what was done to his baby, Josh did the adaptation on his own without any real outside input, from what he said. The play is done with a cast of three actors, primarily playing Marcus, Ange, and Darryl. (Technically, this isn’t true in that Cory Censoprano who plays Darryl actually has very little stage time as Darryl but he does start and end there.) While Daniel Petzold always plays Marcus, both Cory and Marissa Keltie (who plays Ange) rotate through all of the other characters encountered in the course of the story. For example, when Marcus is confronting his parents, a sweater and a shawl are added, along with a change in intonation or accent, in order to convey that it isn’t Darryl and Ange (if that isn’t completely obvious). The conceit of the play, really, is that Marcus, Ange, and Darryl are telling the story of what happened to them after the fact in the storefront they’ve set up in the Mission following the incidents being related. Josh discussed afterwards that having the actors play the other characters so transparently (as opposed to really pretending that you couldn’t tell it was the same person) involves the audience as kind of co-conspirators in their doing so. I do agree that it was effective.

Another thing that worked well in the production was their use of video. The story of Little Brother is one that heavily involves technology. How to show this in a small stage play is an obvious challenge. One thing that was done was to have video intermixed at various points, especially when the characters are working online or texting, but to have it reversed so that the projected video showed them typing or texting (but no details) while the actors, right in front of us, explained what they were doing or acted it out. When Marcus does his press conference in Clockwork Plunder, a clockwork driven online pirate MMORG, pirate hats, plastic cutlasses, and, I believe, an eye patch or two were donned as the avatars in game acted out the conference (to some hilarity).

Overall, all of this worked out well. Obviously, I’m a fan of the original book so I’m predisposed to like the play but a bad adaption or approach to the story, which had to be condensed mightily to fit into two hours, could easily have ruined it. Using only three actors could have worked out very badly as well. I found that it flowed and was true enough to the essential story that I was satisfied. One of my companions did complain that his favorite line by Marcus from the book was left out (which was “I had a boner that could cut glass”) but even he was happy overall.

One of the things that makes the story continue to work well, which the cast and script writer/director acknowledged in various ways, is that even though it was written in 2008 to deal with issues of the post-9/11 world, Little Brother is very much of the current times in which we find ourselves. We’ve had the Arab Spring and the ongoing attempts in Syria and even Iran where people are using technology as a lever as they try to overthrow tyranny. We have our own Occupy movement (especially here in Oakland, where I live), which is very much trying to change the discourse in our nation and to raise awareness. This has lead to protests in the streets, here in America, and subsequent crackdowns. Against this sort of backdrop, I found that my emotional response to Little Brother was much stronger than it might otherwise have been. The idea that we need to stand up for ourselves, no matter how otherwise powerless we might be, and “take it back” is something I think that many of us understand much more immediately than we did in 2008 as the economic crash leading to our “Great Recession” began and everything that has happened to lead to the current very vocal dissatisfaction with business as usual. I wanted to post a quote a quote from Little Brother that covers the sentiment exactly:

“It’s our goddamned city! It’s our goddamned country. No terrorist can take it from us for so long as we’re free. Once we’re not free, the terrorists win! Take it back! Take it back! You’re young enough and stupid enough not to know that you can’t possibly win, so you’re the only ones who can lead us to victory!
*Take it back!”

“TAKE IT BACK!” we roared. She jammed down hard on her guitar. We roared the note back and then it got really really LOUD.

Of course, in the story, this is followed by the kind of beatdown of the crowd by the authorities with pepper spray and clubs that would make the Oakland Police Department grin like proud parents.

I think that the play is definitely worth seeing and I see it has been extended two weeks through the end of February. You can get tickets at goldstar. You should go!