Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre

What did our critic think of BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre?

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is THE hot topic of the day, touted as the panacea for societies’ ills and capable of providing more leisure time and making life easier. The flip side is getting equal play time – we’re being overrun with technology, ostensibly losing our identity to algorithms, and reducing us to big data. Kate Attwell’s Big Data, commissioned by A.C.T., wonderfully exposes both perspectives asking the audience to think of where we stand in the present and moving forward.

Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre
(L–R) BD Wong (M), Michael Phillis (Timmy), and Gabriel Brown (Sam).

Tony winner B.D. Wong owns the first act as ‘M,’ a stranger who insinuates himself into the lives of two couples playing on their deepest issues, exposing their fears and desires. We get that he’s surreal, perhaps a bot. The play opens with an interview where B.D. explains a Pavlovian experiment with pigeons being rewarded with food – the same applies to Act 1 where M provides incentives to the humans, with respective rewards. Max, played by Bay Area legend Jomar Tagatac is a blocked writer, with no real game plan. His ophthalmologist partner Lucy (Rosie Hallett) is an overworked overachiever. Lucy’s gay brother Sam (Gabriel Brown) and his partner Timmy (Michael Phillis) have marital issues with trust and fidelity.

Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre
Jomar Tagatac (Max) and BD Wong (M).

M plays on their fear and hopes and by the end of ACT I, life has changed for them with new or enhanced careers. The benefits of AI? All this plays out on Tanya Orellana’s sleek set, highlighted with intrusive projections of the main characters by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson. Tony winner Pam MacKinnon gets Attwell’s intention and Act I flows with a surreal aura of human/technology interaction.

Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre
(L–R) Gabriel Brown (Sam), Rosie Hallett (Lucy), and Michael Phillis (Timmy).

ACT II flips the perspective and style of the play completely, focusing on Lucy and Sam’s parents Joe (Harold Surratt) and Didi (Julia McNeal). A family lunch becomes a battle over Attwell’s point – the benefits of our technology-based lives versus pulling back and retaining some semblance of individuality and actively opposing the blindless surge towards the Matrix and Skynet (the fictional artificial neural network-based conscious group mind). Joe and Didi are burying their phones and smart thermostat, pulling their money from the banks, and going vegan. The kids are horrified, and the battle lines are evident.

Review: BIG DATA at American Conservatory Theatre
The cast of Kate Attwell’s Big Data.

Attwell brings up some hard topics here- can we go ‘off grid’ to escape the inexorable move towards complete exposure to big data or have we lost the battle already. The decisions by the family, both seemingly positive and deeply shocking, show where we may lie on the spectrum. B.D. Wong’ s M, missing for the majority of Act II, seems pleased with his actions, but are we?  

Big Data continues through March 10th. For tickets, please call 415-749-2228 or online at act-sf.org/bigdata.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne




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