In playwright Aaron Jan’s HAGS, a live virtual theatre presentation by York University Theatre, social media itself is as much a character—and just as vulnerable to manipulation—as the Gen Z activists who form Hamiltonians Against Groups of Sadism. It is a clumsy moniker and feels appropriately uncomfortable as we discover the covert and problematic machinations of this self-proclaimed “consistent beacon of marginalized hope.”
Framed as a Zoom meeting between three members initiating a fourth into their group, the story unfolds in real time. It starts off as comedy, but quickly evolves into a dark thriller as it descends into the murky moral landscape of social justice and cancel culture. The most intriguing aspect of Jan’s story is how it pokes at the awful ambiguity of extreme activism. The spectre of followers and the pressure for constant engagement loom large as he unpacks his characters’ seeming altruism and, with mischievous glee, offers up the grotesque and abject humanity he finds in their dubious motivations.
The characters are sufficiently nuanced and compelling for this hour-long, pressure-cooker scenario. Judging from the thematically appropriate Live-chat during the performance, a favourite is Frank Chung’s Theo. His relentless enthusiasm is exhausting and his energy feels delightfully incongruous with the group’s sombre, somewhat pretentious vibe. Though he’s a parody of a hype man, Chung plays him with a guileless intensity that is truly adorable.
As the group’s cold and uncompromising leader, Marina, Jasnoor Sandhur has the difficult task of making us care about a deeply unlikable character. Though dismissive and bullying, we can sense the very relatable insecurity and resentment festering beneath her unpleasant demeanour.
As the soft-spoken, steadfastly moderate Audrey, Din Dizon seems to dismiss herself before anybody else has the opportunity, but her firm convictions creep up on us and she asserts herself as a safe, sensible anchor.
Erik is the most passive character in the story. He knows the rhetoric and is certainly invested in the cause, but he doesn’t seem to have any deep convictions or agency. Joshua Kilimnik renders him authentically, but I didn’t find him particularly interesting.
As the alt-right antagonist—The Silent Majority—who hacks into their supposedly secure Zoom meeting, Jacob Hope has a very distinct presence though we never see his face. He remains hooded, affecting a deliberately sinister voice. His identity is eventually revealed in a surprise twist that savvy viewers may suspect early on.
From the mild gore to a nerve-wracking finale, I enjoyed the horror-suspense aspects of this production. The characters’ behaviour sometimes feels dissociated from the severity of the situation as it unfolds and the reality teeters precariously, but it is consistently exciting and thought-provoking. I particularly loved the nightmarish slide from mundane squabbles and threats—“I will mute your mic”—to life and death stakes.
HAGS has a fierce momentum that pulls you into its cautionary hot-take on the dangers of ideology. Though not as slick or detailed as a film like Searching (a good example of this new narrative form), it makes effective use of video conferencing, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to build its world. And despite some clunky contrivances, it feels honest in its depiction of the selfish and vengeful instincts that can lurk behind our wokeness and advocacy.