If you were an “identity unit” rather than a flesh-and-blood person, how would you know? That’s the premise of MIT theater professor Jay Scheib’s “World of Wires,” a 90-minute mindbender at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
The show is loosely adapted from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 film “World on a Wire,” which posits a supercomputer-created simulation world with more than 9,000 “identity units” who believe they’re human. Over the course of the film’s 3½ hours, Dr. Fred Stiller of the Center for Cybernetics and Futurology tries to determine why people are disappearing, and when he enters the simulation world, he discovers that his own “real” world is a simulation controlled from the next level up, and that he’s just another identity unit.
Eventually, Stiller’s consciousness is elevated into the body of a real person — well, it’s elevated to a higher level. In Fassbinder’s vertiginous world of mirrors and video monitors, one never really knows.
In “World of Wires,” Scheib trains a camera on the seven identity units — er, performers — so that they appear live and on screen at the same time. Stiller is an employee at Rien (“Nothing” in French) Inc. who enters the virtual world his company has created as he investigates the death of his colleague Dr. Fuller and the disappearance of his head of internal security.
At first, you see the live actors only through narrow openings at the corners of the playing space; center stage is occupied by a video-screen fourth wall that is no more real than anything else here. Once that has tumbled down and been whisked away, “World of Wires” turns into “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Fred getting a surfeit of all three in a show that does not stint on nudity, histrionics, expletives, or Stravinsky. (Expect plenty of “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrouchka.”) Consumer appetites and corporate control are targeted, and the storyline can get confusing, but you do know strings are being pulled when Stiller is told, “Be a marionette and get me another drink.”
Almost 50 years ago, Jean-Luc Godard treated these same themes in “Alphaville”; his film even ends, like “World of Wires,” with a guy, a girl, and a car. One thing Scheib tells us that Godard did not, however: No matter how many levels of reality we go up or down, we will never run short of Pringles.