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BWW Reviews: The Brick Theater's THE UNCANNY VALLEY: A Trip Down The Technological Rabbit Hole


"The Uncanny Valley" invites audiences to take a trip down the technological rabbit hole. Created and directed by University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professor Francesca Talenti, this new play makes for an unsettling evening at the theater - yet its overly moralistic tone prevents it from probing as deeply as it could. The play provides a twist on the concept of the uncanny valley - the idea that that which possesses human features and moves almost like a human being, but is slightly off, will have an effect of repulsion on the human viewer.

"The Uncanny Valley" follows Edwin (Alphonse Nicholson), a young man down on his luck and desperately looking to overcome the rough patch in his life. At the play's start, a mysterious professor - via a robot named Dummy (played by an actual robot named RoboThespianä) - invites Edwin to participate in a study that will create a robot version of himself and simultaneously allow him to strike it rich. Though the batty old janitor Atropos (the convincingly zany Katja Hill) warns Edwin of the danger, he simply cannot refuse the offer - and he sets off on the study in which human and robot dummy may become a little too close for comfort.

The most striking and unsettling element of "The Uncanny Valley" by far proves to be the RoboThespianä - a distinctive robot with quite the crew behind him, including Robot Manager Jim Bulluck, Robo Explorer Henry Fuchs, and Software Designer Adrian Ilie. Though the robot appears quite mechanical at first, Dummy is programmed to mimic the movements and appearance of Nicholson, down to the cadence of the actor's voice. This makes for a profoundly uncomfortable theatrical experience - and rightly so.

Oddly enough, however, Nicholson's own performance also seems a little mechanical at first. Edwin at the beginning feels rather flat, but Nicholson's emotional depth as a performer grows as the run time continues on. Hill supplies a bit of comic relief as the crazy Atropos, though her character is largely one-sided - serving as the superego to Dummy's id. This trajectory echoes the content of the play - "The Uncanny Valley" aims to provoke both an intellectual and emotional reaction in the audience yet does not quite manage to do either. A great deal of the dialogue - especially in the case of Atropos's lines - feels heavy-handed, clearly stating a message to theatergoers. The play raises several interesting ideas, yet only scrapes the surface on them. I admire the effort this production makes, however, and I will declare that the show had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

That feeling aside, this production also demonstrates that the convergence of human and robot is not yet a real danger - the show suffered a near 40-minute delay due to technical issues. Yet I somehow took some comfort in this: the valley between human and technology remains - and "The Uncanny Valley" nicely confirms our unique humanness upon the show's end.

Photo Credit: Kathy Perkins

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