BWW Review: Prime Productions Mounts MARJORIE PRIME at Park Square

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BWW Review: Prime Productions Mounts MARJORIE PRIME at Park SquarePlaywriting can be a form of thinking, and plays can be thought-experiments. That's true of Jordan Harrison's four actor, 80 minute play MARJORIE PRIME (a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize), set in 2062 and beyond. He's investigating whether advances in Artificial Intelligence might enable new means of care-giving for older adults losing their memories. Along the way, intriguing questions arise. What does memory have to do with identity? Are you still you when you lose critical aspects of yours? What are the ethics of trimming the truth or outright lying to someone who has lost track of the facts of their earlier life? Where is the boundary between our species and robots equipped with advanced AI capacities? Though I don't think the play works all that well despite strong work from the actors, I admire Harrison's audacious choice of subject. He's a bold artist, currently writing for Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."

In this futuristic world, life-like robots (known as 'Primes') can be programmed to look and act like specific departed individuals. They are 'primed' by being told about 'themselves' and the events and relationships central to their past by the surviving family members who purchase them. Thereafter they interact with the living in ways increasingly consistent with the dead person on whom they are modeled.

Without giving too much away, I can say that three of the four actors here play Primes at some point in the production. One of the most effective moments, late in the intermissionless show, allows us to see the three sitting together without a human in the room. By reversal, it points up what we celebrate in actors: their lovely 'aliveness' and vivacity. Here, that alternates with long moments where they subside into unactivated robot neutrality, not even visibly breathing, drained of all vitality. It's quite riveting. Hats off to Candace Barrett Birk, James Rodriguez, Laura Stearns and their director, Elena Giannetti, for their coordinated work here.

It's clear that playwright Harrison trusts actors and is not afraid to throw big challenges at them. The fourth actor in this show, Andre Shoals, has a lengthy, anguished monologue which requires great emotional range and in which he is entirely present and believable. It's an impressive performance, and seeing it from just a few rows away in Park Square's smaller thrust space is remarkable.

Park Square often makes their spaces available to other Twin Cities theater groups who offer considerable diversity in points of view and style. It's a great argument for being a subscriber to Park Square: you will see, over the course of a season, quite a range of approaches to theater arts and a broader range of topics than is often the case.

Here, the company mounting this show is Prime Productions, which "seeks to explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories" both on and off stage. This demographic is woefully underrepresented in the standard theater canon so they are a welcome addition to the busy Twin Cities theater scene. Founded in December 2015 by Elena Giannetti, Alison Edwards, and Shelli Place, Prime Productions is in just their third full season, and have already mounted full productions at three of the cities' most adventurous venues: Mixed Blood, the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, and now Park Square. For this production, they've also worked with a local independent bookstore, Subtext Books, to put together a reading list of titles connected to Artificial Intelligence, dementia care, and issues around aging. This is smart synergy.

I feel the need to break with my practice of avoiding spoilers by mentioning that the story here involves (offstage) suicide(s), though this isn't mentioned in any of the press materials. Still, this is crucial, not incidental, to the plot. Given the triggering nature of this subject for many, I think audience members should be forewarned. MARJORIE PRIME runs through May 19.

Photo credit: Devon Cox

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From This Author Karen Bovard