Robots, at once fascinating and scary, are no longer the fiction of stories dating back to ancient scripture. Anybody seen a Golem lately? An animate being cobbled together out of old body parts makes for a good thrill read or movie. The Tin Man and the Scarecrow can sing and dance up a storm. Kids in the Fifties fell in love with Robby, the Robot, seen in the film The Forbidden Planet. Who didn’t love Lieutenant Commander Data? Though only a voice, Hal 9000 became a very sinister being, in 2001, A Space Odyssey. But some real robots, ones that aren’t endearing like C-3PO and his chirpy buddy R2-D2, robots that are clearly machines, are throwing people out of work. Robots have taken over jobs like that which Charlie Chaplin had in Modern Times, tightening bolts on an everlasting conveyer belt. The closer robots get to mimicking human beings, the more uncanny they seem. The term “uncanny valley” is aesthetically, according to Wikipedia, “… the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers.”
Thomas Gibbons’ Uncanny Valley, now in its Los Angeles premiere at International City Theatre, is a two-character, two-act play, that explores some of the issues involved with the emerging, evolving, ever more sophisticated development of created entities, which for want of a better term, we call robots.
At lights up, the audience sees an attractive older woman, a scientist named Claire (Susan Denaker), in a tidy, modern office. Sitting on a credenza to her left is a head. It is a handsome man’s head appearing to be thirty-ish. She gives instructions to the head, which is named Julian (Jacob Sidney)—“blink;” “raise your eye-brows;” “open your mouth;” “smile.” This Julian does with smooth, efficient alacrity. In a series of short scenes filled with a goodly amount of humor, Julian rapidly grows in intellectual subtly due to the tremendous amount of knowledge and learning ability that has been programmed into, shall we say, him. He gets a torso, then an arm, then two, eventually feet and legs. He is filled with the rapture and sensations of motion with its ever-changing point of view. This is absorbing, fascinating. Then he is informed that he has a purpose. In a quest for immortality, an elderly, dying billionaire, through the wizardry of computer science, has digitized his entire life experience—emotions, persona, memories, everything—so as to be downloaded into Julian, who in essence will become a thirty-four year-old version of the dying tycoon.
With Thomas Gibbons’ smart script, a first class cast, and a handsome production, International City Theatre artistic director, caryn desai, delivers a show that is fast paced, funny and touching. Susan Denaker as Claire is excellent as a woman nearing the end of her career, beset by some intractable family woes, yet who finds commonality with an artificial being. Jacob Sidney makes a terrific robot that evolves with great subtlety. It is a fine-grained, detailed, nuanced performance.
The show looks terrific thanks to the creative team of set designer Tesshi Nakagawa, lighting designer Donna Ruzika, costume designer Kim DeShazo, sound designer Jeff Polunas, props designers Patty and Gordon Briles, and hair and wigs designer Anthony Gagliardi.
Uncanny Valley runs through May 7 at International City Theatre, located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way in Long Beach.