With Circle Jerk, Fake Friends Cross the Minefield of Identity Politics One Meme at a Time
[A note: the following article features spoilers for Circle Jerk. Quotes were taken from live screenings of the production.]
Fake Friends’ digital theatrical production, Circle Jerk, is something of a wonder from the moment it begins. A troll wanders the streets, acting as a one fag Greek chorus to tell the tale of queer culture in the 2020s; a tale of memes and brands and rebrands, of TikTok’s and sociosexual flip-flops, of conspiracy theories and the complex politics of cultural appropriation.
This troll is merely our Virgil into the Inferno that is the contemporary queer online landscape and the human beings that exist beyond one’s digital footprint. To say Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s show is a wildly entertaining, academic assault with a side dish of tea isn’t a stretch. We have stirred it, we have sipped it, and girl, the tea is piping hot. Circle Jerk presents a moving and bitter reflection of a queer community that is eating itself alive, an ouroboros of imitation that we may never find the end of.
It’s easy to label Circle Jerk “a lot”, as its intentional messiness seems immaculately designed to provoke as much as it excites, to disorient the audience with as many references as possible within each sentence. For all the pleasure there is in recognizing a line or tune from Into the Woods or Gypsy, or noticing when someone enters the room to Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” opening riff, or catching one of what seems like a dozen shameless Mean Girls references, there’s something all too tragic about the realization that the more we identify with the characters at the play’s core, the more we are implicated in everything the show is critiquing.
Every single aspect of Circle Jerk’s production feels deliberate in an inexplicable way, even down to the song selection for the intro, intermissions, and closing credits between the three acts. You might ask yourself: “Is the decision to bookend the play with songs by Azealia Banks referencing her history with critiquing white gay men [remember the tweet: “LGBT community (GGGG) are like the gay white KKK’s”]? Is using some of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia remixes some sort of reference to the play’s mingling of futurist concepts and cultural nostalgia? Or am I just reading too far into the choices at play here?”
But it’s a fair set of questions to ask oneself when faced with a work of art that utilizes a scene from MTV’s The Hills to stage an emotional set piece between two characters in its third act. The fact that we can recognize something like this playing out via lip sync and split-screen to an effect that’s allowing us to laugh at its use (and very existence) while recognizing that the emotions it presents are being fondly channeled into the narrative is part of why Circle Jerk is so successful. As endlessly quotable and catchy it is, the writers and performers use the same digital lexicon that we use in our day-to-day online conversations — be it a TikTok we send our friends saying “wow same” or a GIF we’ve layered our own face onto via REFACE — to tell a story that’s actually disarmingly vulnerable about what life is like for queer folks in the 2020s.
Before penetrating the text further, let’s set the stage: it is winter on Gaymen Island and a gaggle of white gays are in a flutter over what does and doesn’t belong to them. Jurgen, a propagandist troll, has invented an artificially intelligent meme machine to send the country down an alt-right chaos spiral. When he finds himself cancelled, he and his best friend Lord Baby Bussy come up with a plot to create a digital avatar that will spread fake news and inevitably cancel and be rid of everyone but white gays. The chaos of the newly birthed Eva Maria (and all the personalities that come with her) spreads as much throughout the world as it does within Gaymen Island, where the rest of our cast of characters — Jurgen’s boyfriend Patrick, Patrick’s best friend Michael, Jurgen’s incel maid Honney, and Kokomo, the woman whose facial features were the basis of this avatar— find themselves thrown into a whirlwind of emotional and physical violence.
Alongside collaborators Catherine María Rodríguez and Ariel Sibert, Breslin and Foley have designed something more akin to a live episode of a multi-cam sitcom than a traditional play, with actors sprinting from set to set and changing from character to character while still packing in a joke a second and addressing the kind of things most CBS comedies wish they could get at without falling prey to afterschool special tropes. It’s impossible to discuss the show without noting how the COVID era has distinctly impacted theater and how creators and audiences both adapt to it, and the way the team (which also includes co-director Rory Pelsue) navigate form is essential.
The first two acts play more traditional than its third, with deceptively simple sets (noticing the wrestling/fucking statues in the backdrop, hidden in plain sight, upon a second viewing gave me quite the laugh) being set aside for a black backdrop, a ring light, and three cameras affixed to tripods that split the screen into three blocked off perspectives. This set up not only allows for quick and easy costume changes for the actors, but offers the opportunity to duck and switch cameras, to insert scenes within one of the frames, or even to mirror one panel in various ways, all to disorienting effect for anyone who isn’t as tuned in as they should be. It’s the kind of production design that can only exist in a digital performance space, with the benefit of some pre-filmed pieces and excellent timing on behalf of the entire team (with the occasional goof like sound glitches and a masked cameraman showing up in one of many split screens being a charming side effect).
Each perceived flaw in the production itself can be read as a highlight of its style instead — whether it’s hearing María Rodríguez’s voice echoing through on another set before the on-screen delay of her digital character, or a camera being left on as actors disrobe and move onto the next character. These instances (more so the latter) are a delicious emphasis of the way the walls between fiction and reality are falling apart and a playful acknowledgement that everything about this is part of reality. Yes, it is theatre. Yes, it is film. Yes, it is an experiment. Yes, it is any given number of other styles of performance. But it isn’t without purpose; it’s a formally inventive way to explore what exactly storytelling and performance means to queer people, the ones who constantly find themselves playing with how they’re perceived and adopting new mannerisms and phrases in order to find just the right balance of identity.
If I may allow myself a joke, sort of, Circle Jerk is sort of a queer millennial Body Snatchers, exploring how malleable identity is and how reactionary those pivots can sometimes be. This notion of an identity swap is essential to the sub and surtext of the show, from its performers inhabiting multiple roles to its heavy plotting. Some viewers may argue that the show may suffer from lack of plot and characters make nonsensical decisions, but I’d argue that’s a reductive take on the play that removes the way each character has their own distinct arc that also coincides with the grander themes being explored (not to mention the show explicitly addresses its multiple plotlines with jokes like “staging a b-plot to my a-plot”). It’s why the third act shamelessly re-uses the lines — “Who are you?”/“I am you.”/“I am me?”/“No sir you are you.” — to represent all of the persona swapping present on both subliminal and literal grounds. Patrick’s character, who does all of the shooting in the third act of the play, has more than enough reason for doing so: he is expelling all of the pieces of him that he doesn’t believe suits him any longer.
When Patrick shoots Jurgen (or, more specifically, himself as Jurgen), it isn’t only the death of a character, it’s an abject rejection of the White Supremacist Gay inside each and every one of us. So much of the second and third act finds Patrick quarrelling with himself and with Michael on the concept of what it means to date someone on the perceived “wrong side” of the fence (AKA the far-right). Take Breslin and Foley’s surrogate characters, who may take the prize for “Most Recognizable and Damning Characterizations of My Friends and I” in contemporary queer art, as the best embodiment of this. Patrick’s monologue to Michael after being chastised for dating a racist — calling out the scared intellectual faggot in each and every single one of us, well aware that we are one step away from a possible cancelation — and Michael’s response about what skeletons are in his closet — “I flip-fucked my way to the far-left to the far-right […] and I liked it; it’s like I feel hot for the first time ever” — speaks volumes about the way we’re willing to betray our own convictions in private for the sake of pleasure and validation.
This isn’t to say that every arc plays out or overlaps in the best way, but they’re more ambitious and thought out than one might expect from the flurry of punchlines that come with them. Take the show’s transracial-transgender connection between Kokomo and Honney. Their journey becomes intrinsically linked in the same way that many a white woman who identifies as transracial appropriates the journey of trans people, seeking validation and inevitably reducing the “believability” of transness in the eyes of a mainstream culture. These are the Jessica Krug’s and the Rachel Dolezal’s of the world, latching onto individuals who are actually oppressed for the sake of being perceived as part of what they consider an appreciated culture.
When Honney asks, “Can you reclaim something that was never yours?”, Kokomo’s response is, “You can claim whatever you need.” Those very words are a minefield waiting to happen, something a reactionary individual might take as a critique of the very concept of trans-anything. But for all the jokes about pronouns and gender roles, Honney coming to terms with her gender is arguably one of the most touching pieces of the story here. And there’s something oddly moving about the way Kokomo embraces her digital avatar that pivots from Peloton biker to Trisha Paytas knock-off; a true acknowledgement of the way that each performative aspect of our lives is actually a part of us. Are the mannerisms and dialect appropriated from elsewhere? Circle Jerk argues that maybe any kind of performance is its own form of appropriation and, despite being considered problematic, maybe each bit of mimicry and change is a natural step of human development.
These narrative threads, though they might seem “problematic” in the way they poke fun at the concept of public and private identities and how we perform them solely for our benefit, aren’t dissimilar to the way John Waters jokes about identity in Mr. Know-It-All: “He or she or ‘they’ could then ‘come out’ as gay in their new sexual being, change their mind and ‘come in’ again to be straight, get a sex change, and end up being gay all over again.” As he later adds, “There’s no such thing as boys or girls anymore. Get used to it.” Circle Jerk allows its characters to move between personas in a flash to the point where they all blend together; it’s a convergence of gender, of politics, of sexuality, and of physical and digital image. Much like the malleability of identity, our definition of what is or isn’t harmful mutates and shifts alongside it.
Even beyond John Waters, the ideas and presentations in Circle Jerk aren’t necessarily new. One could easily cite Alan Resnick as in tune with the way this piece explores digital avatars, the way identity is diluted with each imitation of the self that is created, and the horrors of existing in a state of surveillance (even when we are the ones throwing that surveillance onto ourselves). Or take Ryan Trecartin and the way he explores these global queer theories through high camp and high octane performing (albeit through poetic and absurd dictation that embraces a certain bouffon stylization even more than Circle Jerk does). Or take any of the dozens of theorists the characters name drop and poke fun at (from bell hooks to Leo Bersan). Fake Friends’ embrace of the Theatre of the Ridiculous and the way they adapt meme culture and academic texts into a dialogue that contemporary audiences understand more than any traditional dialogue is overwhelming in its own unique way, and their ability to take some of the most loathsome human beings and design them as characters who are ultimately all facing the same deep insecurities as the rest of us is outright fascinating.
Now, maybe this entire piece belongs in /r/circlejerk with how self-congratulatory the whole thing sounds in terms of analyzing the text and understanding every other reference, but there’s something about this production that excites me like few things do. This may sound reductive to some extent, but it’s all in the way the creators pull from shallow pleasures and explore the familiar humanity beneath the whatever loud, brash façade they’re playing with (take This American Wife, their exploration of themselves through Real Housewives). We may tell ourselves, “I am implicitly problematic, but you are explicitly problematic,” and maybe that’s part of the problem. Circle Jerk lets you hate yourself as much as you hate others while finding the humor in the flawed way we project onto others.
Circle Jerk is livestreaming performances through Oct 25th and will be available for rental from Oct 26th to Nov 7th. Tickets are $5–50 on a sliding scale.
P.S: My main complaint remains that the words “Emancipate Mimi” trigger Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” instead of any song from The Emancipation of Mimi, despite understanding that the lyrics to “Fantasy” are more thematically suited to this show.
P.P.S: I’d like to give a special thanks to the friends who watched and texted with me throughout three different performances of Circle Jerk that I watched this week, and Conrad Tao especially, who was willing to have some interesting conversations about the show’s ambitions and execution for hours after it ended.