BWW Reviews: CATF 2014 : UNCANNY VALLEY Uses Artificial Intelligence Technology to Display Genuine Emotion
For a show heavily focusing on artificial intelligence and technology, Thomas Gibbon's Uncanny Valley displays a genuine feature of human emotion.
Directed by Thomas Dugdale and set in the "not-distant future", Uncanny Valley portrays the relationship between retiring neuro-scientist Claire (Barbara Kingsley) and an artificial intelligence being named Julian (Alex Podulke). Claire teaches Julian how to speak, think and act like a human to blend into society, but when Julian unlocks some emotional and ethical questions, the creation ends up teaching his creator about life.
Kingsley was terrifyingly warm, engaging and funny as an aging neuro-scientist and mother. Her dry wit and easy going manner, while still maintaining a professional presence as the conduit to the important scientific information the audience needed to understand the show, was remarkable. Her monologue about gradually losing contact with her grown daughter and what it means to be a parent was absolutely heart-wrenching and her emotional outburst towards Julian near the end of the show was completely brilliant.
Podulke was incredible as an actor portraying a robotic being. His physical transformation throughout the show was fascinating and his movements and speech patterns at the opening of the show were incredibly precise and mechanical. A particularly funny moment occurred when Podulke displayed a Golden-Age Broadway dance for Claire, which he learned and imitated from watching older videos. Watching Podulke dance as a robot trying to imitate an actor was absolutely hilarious. He performed incredibly well, both physically as an artificial intelligence being and emotionally as the being became truly human, never shying away from the difficult moral or emotional moments. Both actors' physical transformations in the second portion of the show were astounding.
Though the show focused on a very technical and somewhat controversial subject matter, all of the scientific terms referenced within the show were explained very concisely and easily for the audience. Another interesting choice (relating to the technology used in the show) was using a live video recorder onstage as part of the action. At various moments in the show, Claire would film Julian and the images from unique onstage angles would broadcast live on a flat screen T.V. on the opposite corner of the stage. The choice provided an interesting prospective, though the footage and live screening was occasionally distracting and unnecessary.
The audience entered the theater to a unique video projection of the current audience, displayed on the stage curtains as a human mirror, for the audience to watch themselves before the show began. It was an interesting choice and tied in very nicely with the conflicting theme of human technology versus humanity. The only criticism is an unnecessary moment in the middle of the show, during a crucial plot point. A costume change for both of the actors and scene change is required for the next scene. However, instead of leaving the stage dark and curtains drawn for a moment, a giant pre-recorded video projection of Julian is broadcast on the curtains, ending with him smiling and falsely creating the illusion the show is over. The moment left audiences unsure of whether the show actually was over, with what would have been a very ambiguous ending.
Aside from a weak and confusing transition, Uncanny Valley is an extraordinary production displaying two actors packing a deeply emotional punch in a technologically advanced show. The chemistry between Kingsley and Podulke in their evolving emotional relationship is remarkable and not to be missed.
Uncanny Valley continues to run as one of the five plays in rotating repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Uncanny Valley performances occur at the Studio 112 in the Center for Contemporary Arts on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. The final performance occurs August 3 at 4:30 PM. For more information about the show schedule, the 2014 season or to order tickets, please visit www.catf.org.
Photo Credit: CATF Media Gallery