Conspicuous Consumption, Getting More Conspicuous Onstage

Instagram was not yet five years old in April 2015 when two Iranians barely out of their teens died in a lemon yellow Porsche Boxster GTS that veered off a road and slammed into a tree.

But in “Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran,” a play written by Javaad Alipoor, the photo-sharing app might as well have been a historian making a record of privilege, an archaeologist rooting through the trash of the past.

And, now, a theatrical device. “Rich Kids,” part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, uses a fictional Instagram feed to tell the real story of Mohammad Hossein Rabbani Shirazi, who owned the fancy car, and Parivash Akbarzadeh, who was driving it too fast. While listening to the tale as narrated by two actors, audience members are instructed to swipe on their phones through a photo trail of parties, pools, drug toots and shopping trips that rewind the minutes, hours, years and eventually millenniums leading up to the crash.

As that format suggests, “Rich Kids,” which originated as a live stage production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, is more interested in the big sociological picture than in the characters themselves. Hossein (Alipoor) is sketched in primary colors as the feckless princeling son of a revolutionary hero, who now builds high-end shopping malls; Parivash (Peyvand Sadeghian) gets a slightly more nuanced portrait as a fatalistic opportunist marking time with Hossein, even though he is engaged to another woman. What brings them together and leads to their tragedy is not love or even recklessness but a disease the play diagnoses as late-capitalist consumerist mania.

Oddly, that’s also the disease infecting everyone in “Espíritu,” an Under the Radar offering from a completely different aesthetic universe. A symbolist collage created by Teatro Anónimo of Chile, “Espíritu” tells no discernible story, offers no history and involves no technological annotation. Even so, we come to understand that the various characters wafting through its collection of short, ripe vignettes (the play is long enough at 32 minutes) are miserably unfulfilled, desperate to find a sense of purpose, as if it were something you could buy at a bodega if only you had the cash.

Though there is not a moment in the earnest, theatrical “Espíritu” (written and directed by Trinidad González) you would ever confuse with a moment in the slick, cerebral “Rich Kids,” that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say to each other. In one of the “Espíritu” vignettes, an entitled rich character not unlike Hossein yells from his window at a young woman in the street who makes the mistake of standing near his car. She is trespassing in his light, he says: Because it comes from his apartment, it is his “private property.”

In another vignette, an inconsolable woman screams at the feckless musician who offers her love but cannot provide anything she actually desires. If the ethos of manic acquisitiveness has reduced her to wailing, “I want a car,” his rejection of that ethos has transformed him, she says, “into a clown.”

The focus of “Espíritu,” which also features a park bench vigilante, a sweaty tangoist and an unidentifiable creature with a head made of red stocking, is squarely on the clowns, not the maniacs. It begins with the three actors planning a revolution they are grandiose enough to imagine in poetic terms — they are going to trap the world’s evil in a bottle and dispose of it — but are actually too feckless to carry out. “Espíritu” asks what role they, and by extension the theater, can play in change-making: If artists are engaged in purely personal expression, how are they better than the mad consumers they mock? Isn’t shopping their personal expression?

Instagram would have you think so, which is a point “Rich Kids” makes in both content and format. The narration of Hossein and Parivash’s story is never as vivid as the lurid photos assembled to illustrate it. The cars, the watches and the magnums of Champagne are merely modern ways of doing what Thomas Gainsborough did (as the play points out) for class-conscious 18th-century Englishmen in paintings like “Mr and Mrs Andrews.” They make wealth visible, not only to others but also to the wealthy themselves.

For all of the intelligence on display, I began to feel that “Rich Kids” — created by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, and directed by both — was doing something similar. Not so much with its complex tech, which has an expressive purpose. Thumbing your phone while watching your screen while reading the Instagram captions while hearing them spoken by actors, not always in sync, you are forced to experience the kind of oversaturation that (the play argues) helped derange the “aghazadeh” generation of privileged post-revolutionary Iranians.

But in its many overlays of historical and even geological information, “Rich Kids” traffics in a mania related to the consumerist one it diagnoses: information mania. In a series of throat-clearing introductions that eat up nearly 15 minutes of the hourlong presentation, we are told that what we’re about to see is a story not just about Hossein and Parivash but also about civilizational collapse, thermodynamics, the nature of narrative and “the billions of tiny decisions that make up history and get us here.”

“Everything is about everything,” Alipoor explained in a post-show discussion.

True, but perhaps a tighter edit would have made something more fully about something.

I had the opposite problem with “Espíritu,” which only seems to be about anything in the moments when the excellent actors (Trinidad González, Matteo Citarella and Tomás González) are given real drama to chew on. The supposed poetry of the more abstract scenes, at least as rendered in the English subtitles, verges on passé, and the staging, though filmed, is stagy.

Yet I value the way “Espíritu” tries to address the purpose and shape of theater in a viral pandemic and also a moral one. Like “Rich Kids,” it sees the problem of hyper-consumption as existential, in a way that Gainsborough, from the far side of several economic revolutions, didn’t. For playwrights who aren’t content to paint pretty pictures, Romeo and Juliet just don’t cut it anymore. That’s too bad, but in a world uploading more than 500 million Instagram stories a day, timelier subjects of tragic love stories might be Rolex and Perrier-Jouët.

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran
Through Jan. 17;

Through Jan. 17;

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