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Review: UNCANNY VALLEY at International City Theatre

Review: UNCANNY VALLEY at International City Theatre
The "uncanny valley" theory explains
why this photo is so off-putting.
(Note: Photo unrelated to show)

BroadwayWorld Science Lesson: According to wikipeida, the "uncanny valley" is the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. Simply put, things that look or act human (but not quite all the way) are off-putting. It's the reason why so many people are afraid of clowns, think dolls look creepy, and run at the sight of Steve Bannon...

This hypothesis is the topic of Thomas Gibbons' Uncanny Valley, which saw its Los Angeles premiere last Friday night at International City Theatre in Long Beach. When an artificially intelligent robot is uploaded with a deceased CEO's personality, memories, and consciousness, the question arises: Should we accept the robot as the CEO?

The Story

The play is set in the not too distant future, and follows an aging neuroscientist, Claire (Susan Denaker), who has devoted her life to crafting an artificially intelligent robot, Julian (Jacob Sidney). We first meet Claire teaching Julian human idiosyncrasies, like laughing at things that aren't funny. Julian is really smart, but like most robots, he's far too logical to understand non-sequitur human interactions. But, as the weeks progress, he is able to learn human emotions so well that it's possible he might be self-aware. He ends up superior to humans in every way (except his ability to use contractions and talk in a normal sounding voice, for some reason).

As a genuine friendship begins to grow between Claire and her creation, she reveals that a terminally ill CEO funded the project, and he intends to have his memories and consciousness uploaded into Julian so he can achieve immortality. After this happens, a court battle ensues between Julian (who is now technically the CEO) and the CEO's son for control over the company, since the law doesn't recognize robots as being people (which actually seems like good public policy to me -- we really shouldn't be giving them more ways to be able to take over the world).

How Was It?

Short Answer: It's always a pleasant change to see science fiction staged in the theatre. Thank you Thomas Gibbons for being creative and not writing another play about a dysfunctional family. It was a thoroughly entertaining experience, and I recommend Uncanny Valley to anybody in the Long Beach area.

Longer Answer:

In a recent interview with Adam Szymkowicz, Thomas Gibbons advised emerging playwrights to "resist the temptation to write autobiographical plays about your dysfunctional family. Imagine more interesting worlds and give them to us." I couldn't agree more.

Limiting yourself to writing from past experiences is a trap a lot of young writers fall into. You felt really powerful emotions about your last breakup, so why wouldn't the rest of the world? Many writers feel obligated to write from their past experiences, and a lot of shows being produced today are bound by the constraints of reality. Thankfully, this isn't one of them.

Artificial Intelligence isn't a topic frequently explored in theatre (2015 Pulitzer finalist Marjorie Prime aside). I commend Gibbons for treading uncharted waters with a piece that feels so new and different.

The story is creative. In an age where it seems like almost every original idea has been done by somebody else (and parodied by The Simpsons), it's rather uncanny when I see something that I can't draw a parallel to. While a few plays about Artificial Intelligence have been produced before, none that I can think of come close to following the plot of Uncanny Valley. It's something you have to see to experience, and International City Theatre's production did this imaginative show justice.

Review: UNCANNY VALLEY at International City Theatre
Claire (Susan Denaker) dancing with her
robot friend, Julian (Jacob Sidney).

Since this is a two-person play, a strong cast is essential. Luckily, ICT bagged some outstanding talent. Susan Denaker portrayed the neurobiologist, Claire, with both a collegial intelligence and humanity that drove the whole show forward. Jacob Sidney embodied the artificially intelligent robot, Julian, with surprising ease. He gradually brought the soul out of his soulless character, and quickly made Julian into a very lovable Sheldon Cooper-esque robot.

The futuristic set design was interesting. Tesshi Nakagawa's set captured the sterility expected in the future, but also maintained a warmness to remind us that emotion is what separates man from machine. Donna Ruzika's lighting design integrated with the set well to help provide subtle changes in mood.

All in all, it was an entertaining night. If you find yourself in Downtown Long Beach, be sure to catch this unique show.

How to See it?

Uncanny Valley runs through May 7th at International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 330 East Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. Tickets are $47 for Thursday and Friday performances, and $49 for Saturday and Sunday performances, and can be purchased here or by calling (562) 436-4610.

More Pretty Pictures

Review: UNCANNY VALLEY at International City Theatre
The robot Julian (Jacob Sidney) learning to walk. Nice shoes.

Review: UNCANNY VALLEY at International City Theatre

Photos by Steven Georges

From This Author - George Brietigam