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Circle Jerk – Online via Fake Friends, New York City

Writers: Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley in collaboration with Cat Rodríguez and Ariel Sibert

Director: Rory Pelsue

Reviewer: Charlotte Lang-Bush

“YAAAAS, KWEEN! I’M GOING INTO THE SEWER!”  Eating up the poisoned candy at the heart of Circle Jerk.

The poet laureate of trash, John Waters, memorably said that “there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste… To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.” The irreverent brains (and hearts, and bussies) behind Fake Friends’ Circle Jerk use their seemingly-boundless supply of taste (both good and bad) to conceal a core of brutal satire behind deepfake gifs and Real Housewives lip syncs. In a set that looks equal parts The Mighty Boosh and Contrapoints video essay, the three-actor cast (playing a remarkable nine characters) somehow manages to winkingly rewrite The Mystery of Irma Vep while also grappling handily with cultural appropriation, white supremacy, and the nature of queer culture.

The most formally innovative show of the past year, Circle Jerk uses split screens, ASMR tutorials, TikTok memes, lip syncs, creative video editing, and more to tell the story of hedonistic, white supremacist gay men on the fictional Gayman Island who want to (as one character says) “cancel the world.”  The plot (two alt-right white gay men seeking to incite a race war by pitting the world against itself through an AI-generated “LGBTQ-anon bitch” influencer) seems straightforward enough, but then complicates itself again and again, an ouroboros gleefully eating its own sparkly tail while yelling “don’t tread on me.” B and C plots (a surprisingly earnest romantic dramedy and a full-camp Rachel-Dolezal-esque appropriation of indigenous culture, respectively) emerge, vogue, and culminate in winningly unhinged acts of violence. Even typing this brief, absurdly scant recap was a balm against the thudding horror of 2020. This reviewer had to pause during the third (hilariously lip-synched-through) intermission to offer raucous thanks to Jeremy O. Harris for promoting and partially funding this piece. So many pieces of 2020 remote theatre merely wanted to replicate the live medium; Circle Jerk just blew it up and made its own (nasty, brilliant) way to play.

It is so hard to describe this play. A deliberately-overwhelming deconstruction of farce filtered through queer culture’s in-jokes and skewering the Lisa Frank fascism that is all too real in 2021? This play would take one look at the above wordy description and thumb its contoured nose.  The uncompromising vitality of this show makes it unique in the theatrical landscape, and there’s something defiantly beautiful in its incisive, profane existence during this hell-year.  When one character says: “Against all odds, I identify as alive,” we all get our collective life. The whiplashes in tone, in satirical targets, and in references are as expertly tossed as a masterful Drag Race wig reveal, but the constant barrage of referential visual media makes sure that we the audience know how complicit we are in the spread of popular fascism and white supremacy. It’s a difficult feat to make a play this smart that doesn’t leave its audience behind, but this play executes the delicate high wire act with flashy, fashy(-skewering) aplomb.

It has been a grim year. Circle Jerk’s hedonists know this, and at the core of this incisive satire of memes, white supremacy, and the internet of thirst, is a core of fear. It is what makes the jokes (and the memes, and the lip-synchs, and the references) land so hard. In a critical moment, a hilariously-accented Milo-lite fascist character even looks into the camera and tells us “if you don’t laugh, this means you’re afraid.” In that moment, we do, and we are, simultaneously. This was not the funniest line in the play (there were hundreds) or even the most shocking, but it was the most true to the reality this play so effortlessly skewers. This is a play for theatre people, first and foremost (the truly gut-busting riff on What the Constitution… had this reviewer cackling) but also for anyone with John Waters’ understanding of taste. It is rare that a satire works this well both at face value, and as an ideological tool, but Circle Jerk woke up like this, and is a goddamned delight.

Viewed on 17 January 2021 | Photo Credit: Fake Friends

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The American team is under the editorship of Adrienne Sowers. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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