BWW REVIEW: EXTINCTION OF THE LEARNED RESPONSE Considers The Ethics Of The Manipulation Of Humanity As Two Scientists Play With Live Experiments
Thursday 9th May 2019, 7:45pm, Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir
Emme Hoy's new work EXTINCTION OF THE LEARNED RESPONSE makes its premiere as part of the Belvoir 25a Independent season. An intimate 80 minute piece presented with snapshot scenes and a pervasive sound track, this is an intriguing expression of human behaviour.
Scientifically, from a behavioural psychology perspective, extinction of a learned response is the gradual weakening of conditioned responses so that behaviours decrease or even disappear if the subject is no longer exposed to the trigger for the behaviour. For Hoy's new play, directed by Carissa Licciardello, scientists Duncan (Tel Benjamin) and Marlow (Jennifer Rani) are trying to see what will happen with test subjects Rachel (Sarah Meacham) and Wells (Eddie Orton) if they break them down and try to train them to interact in society in a way that they want. The audience are introduced to the experiment which has been running for a year and it is never quite clear as to where Duncan and Marlow found their subjects or why they are conducting their experiment nor whether it is officially sanctioned or their own mad plan conducted at home. What does become clear is that Duncan has power issues and their candidates have learnt far more than polite conversation and pouring tea.
Set and costume designer Ella Butler presents a simple set of an assortment of four chairs, a utilitarian table and a pendulum lamp. Duncan and Marlow remain in business like formality of grey suits whilst subjects Rachel and Wells are in ill-fitting garments that indicate a degree of institutionalised care from a school uniform like shift and comfortable cotton pants that hang a little low. Kelsey Lee's lighting design evolves, holding voices in shadows to open up from complete darkness to new scenes, all within the same space. As the experiment progresses, as with the subjects' development, Lee's lighting also reveals more of the machinations of the shifts between scenes. Ben Pierpoint's sound design is imposing in the darkness of at times lengthy changes, continuously keeping the audience in a state of unease and electronic tones echo through the small theatre.
EXTINCTION OF THE LEARNED RESPONSE is intriguing in its flashes of scenes which never really answer the question of why or how the experiment is taking place. Benjamin and Rani convey that the two scientists are ambitious and high achievers but their real relationship is hard to decipher as they struggle for power and ethical treatment of their two test subjects. Benjamin injects a dark and dangerous element into his portrayal of Duncan and gradually builds on it as the work progresses. Whilst he shifts from the seemingly sentimental, the initially clinical Marlow is gradually given a humanity in Rani's expression of the one who shows compassion towards Rachel and Wells.
Meacham captures the innocence and fear of the young girl, particularly when her mistakes force Wells to destroy something he had looked forward to. As Rachel grows Meacham ensures that the audience sees that she is not a wild creature that Marlow and Duncan have tamed but rather an intelligent being who has been subjected to a cruel and unusual experiment. Orton's expression of Wells allows the audience to teeter on their decision of whether the young man is inherently wild or just a broken soul destroyed by the experiment.
EXTINCTION OF THE LEARNED RESPONSE is intriguing and also perplexing at times but forces the audience to consider how much we should or should not be trying to manipulate fellow humans for science or sport, as this seems to have degenerated into.