Theater group brings online cat craze to life

“It’s an experiment in meaning,” Ellen Warkentine said to the crowd before a workshop performance of Act 1 of LOLPERA, her opera based on the LOLcats Internet meme. “It’s about seeking truth in places where no truth can be found.”

Then — with nothing but a stripper pole for set design — a group of Long Beach’s bravest artists and musicians launched into a operatic tale in which LOLcats grapple with the reality of social dichotomies, religious persecution and the fruitless search for “cheezburger.”

As Long Beach’s main off-center theater company, The Garage Theatre operates out of a 35-seat black box theater in a strip of small businesses a block away from the Fifth Street Blue Line Station.

Last weekend, the company took a break from preparing its upcoming run of Revenge of the Space Pandas to present a series of sold-out, pay-what-you-can LOLPERA workshops featuring local artists and musicians with the hopes of garnering enough feedback to make the conceptual musical ready for Garage’s yet-to-be-announced 2011 season.

Garage Theatre affiliates Warkentine and co-author Andrew Pedroza — who plays Dreamer Cat (“Golz. I has them,” he says at one point) — have been working on LOLPERA as a humorous side project for several years.

But after raiding the abundance of free-use LOLcat photos and making the opera’s completion a full-time job, the team was ready to see what the public thought of its dramatic first act.

Perched atop a platform to the left of the audience, Warkentine and five other members of the so-called LOLBAND played original musical numbers reminiscent of everything from Randy Newman to Cabaret to Nine Inch Nails.

On the ground, Pedroza and his cat ear-adorned actors (aka the LOLCAST) sang a libretto composed entirely of text from LOLcat images stolen off the Internet, which were projected in-time on the side of the stage.

Every running joke stemming from the LOLcat phenomenon was present and it was eerie how easily these user-generated storylines came together for a coherent operatic arc.

Synopsis: Ceiling Cat is watching you masturbate and Basement Cat wants to steal your soul, so Astro Cat (who runs LOLCat City) goes on a search for cheezburger, which in the LOLPERA could be interpreted as the rough equivalent of Buddhist nirvana.

An epic ideological war ensues in which LOLRUS loses his “bukkit,” Precious Cat just wants it to “be hugs tiem now” and Serious Cat knows that the Internet is “serious business.”

The aria finds Happy Cat — in an effort to convert the others into believing in Ceiling Cat’s powers of salvation — singing “I can has cheezburger” longingly to the heavens. And, in the end, Astro Cat finds a cheezburger, but, lo, Ceiling Cat has been eating one all along.

As nonsensically meta-memetic as LOLPERA might be, in the end, Warkentine’s opening words resonate in both the LOLcats’ world and our own — “truth where no truth can be found.”

By displaying the jumbled aesthetics of our digital age through the lens of the LOLcats spectacle, the entire production mimics our own fruitless searches for meaning and identity on the Internet.

LOLPERA scrolled through hundreds of visual and auditory reappropriations but focused on several LOLcat photos that seemed to hold more significance than most.

Repeated enough times, “Internet. Serious business,” could mean that things we might find frivolous have the capacity for deeper provocation. And after the fifth reprise, “I has a bukkit” is almost an existential statement of possession than a declaration by a happy-go-lucky walrus.

But in the end, there is no other truth except that someone decided to give some funny photos even funnier captions and now there is an opera based on it.

These attempts to find meaning in one of the Internet’s longest-running inside jokes are ones that could only be posed in Los Angeles, a city whose narrative is marred by a similarly futile search for meaning.

Since the entertainment industry became Los Angeles’ central cultural force, much of the academic discourse around the city has been one of LOLCat-worthy confusion. In a land of scripted mirages, what is real and what is imaginary? And is there truth to be found in the grey areas of these ambiguities?

The entire Los Angeles noir film genre is dedicated to finding meaning in a city that eludes even the most tenacious of fictional private investigators. It twists and turns into dark alleys of cases that refuse to be solved. And just when they think they’ve figured it out, they find that the femme fatale isn’t the dame they once thought.

So maybe in a city where (as Harper’s writer once said) “even the bad taste seems to be fake bad taste,” the question is not, “What truth is hidden in LOLcats?” but instead “What truth can we pretend is buried within?”

Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.

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