Are you reading this review in a good old-fashioned newspaper, or on that newfangled internet?
In “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” playwright Madeleine George takes a look at our increasing dependence on technology and what that means for human interaction. It's been the subject of recent films like “Her” and “Ex Machina,” but it's interesting to see a play tackle these themes.
The theater has long had a complicated relationship with technology. Over the years, radio, film and television have threatened to gobble up its audience. Now, digital entertainment is available at our fingertips, right on our cellphones.
Considering all this, it was refreshing to see a roomful of Californians who braved the rain to come out and see a live performance.
The setting is a train station (set design by Abby Hogan), representing an older network that tied distant people together, the railway system. It's also a location where strangers often pass each other without making contact.
The backdrop is a brick wall with large windows. Some of the upper bricks have rainbow-colored lines drawn between them, again suggesting the “network” theme. In the center of the floor are solid tiles, radiating outwards into more abstract patterns.
Even before the play begins, the disembodied voice of the computer Watson (Jeff Salsbury) addresses the audience, aided by a chorus of laptop bag-wearing youths (Jenae Lizel Galang, Josh Gamble, Sergio Gavidia and Brooke Johnson).
This Watson invites everyone to post selfies on social media with the hashtag “#whoiswatson” (with no question mark.) This is both a fun way to get the audience involved in the play's technological theme, and a shrewd viral marketing campaign.
The play opens with a woman and a man having a pleasant conversation. It quickly becomes apparent that he's not human. He's the AI (artificial intelligence) she's programming.
Eliza (Amani Dorn) formerly worked on Watson, the AI who beat human contestants at “Jeopardy!” Now, she's working on her own project, a similar AI to aid the disenfranchised.
She's recently divorced, and she mentions that she wouldn't have cut her ex so completely out of her life, if he'd just stopped calling her for five minutes.
Ex-huband Merrick (Tim Fullerton) is running for government office on an anti-government platform. (The play gives us a chance to chuckle at the irony of this). This is another “network” that people feel is taking control of their lives.
Merrick's computer is being repaired by a member of the “Dweeb Team” (a parody of Best Buy's “Geek Squad”), who is also named Watson (Salsbury again). Then, because Merrick is a crazy person, he decides that this random IT tech will be the perfect guy to spy on his ex for him. He's convinced she's plotting some kind of revenge.
Eliza, however, sees right through this Watson, and is considerably calmer than most people would be in this situation. (Though she does remark on that later.) In fact, she winds up sleeping with him.
But as a relationship develops, Eliza begins to notice similarities between this human Watson and her AI project. Could they somehow be one and the same?
The modern story is interwoven with two plotlines from the past. Pamela Shaw's costumes evoke the sudden changes in time period wonderfully. Some of the quick changes are performed right on the stage with the help of the laptop-bag chorus.
One plotline involves Dr. John Watson (Salsbury again), the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes. Mrs. Merrick (Dorn again) is seeking the help of the legendary detective. She's been disturbed by strange marks on her hand and the even stranger behavior of her husband. But Holmes, Watson explains, is out on another case, so he attempts to come to her aid himself.
In the third plotline, Salsbury plays Thomas Watson as an older man, giving a radio interview about his “small contribution” to the invention of the telephone.
He reflects on his time with Alexander Graham Bell and “that fateful night” when his name entered history as part of the first phone call. Watson insists that the line was “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” and not “come here, I want to see you.” This distinction, he says, makes all the difference.
“Watson” lacks the raw emotion of PCPA dramatic productions like “Fences” and “The Crucible.” It's more about exploring concepts. These are analytical characters who like to make long speeches about their desires and philosophies -- often with a good deal of insight.
That's not to say that emotion doesn't play a role as well -- a divorce and a new relationship are at the center of the plot.
It's a very theatrical piece, blurring the lines between time periods and between AI and human. No concrete explanations are offered, leaving the audience to interpret things for themselves.
Salsbury impressively plays four characters who are very similar in some ways and extremely distinct in others.
One of the their common links is the sense that there is just something “trustworthy” about them. Who wouldn't want a Watson, who wants nothing more than to help, and wants nothing in return?
His characters also have four very different voices and accents. The AI is reminiscent of Baymax from the Disney movie “Big Hero 6.” Unflappably pleasant, he's always repeating phrases like “I'm sorry, it sounds like I goofed” or “I don't understand what you mean, but I'd like to. Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?” The IT tech is just kind of a regular guy, which is probably the hardest one to play.
Dr. Watson is recognizable as the affable British doctor we're all familiar with from various Holmes-related media. Salsbury has some good visual comedy as both Dr. and Dweeb Team Watson (separately) show at how terrible they are at trying to be inconspicuous.
One of the best parts of the performance is his heartfelt speech as Thomas Watson, describing the importance of being a good assistant.
He has a good interplay with Dorn in all their various forms. They open the play with a funny bit where she keeps swearing and the AI Watson innocently picks up the habit. At times, she seems a tad artificial, though that may be part of the character. Eliza does feel more connected with an AI than with real people.
Both of Fullerton's Merrick characters are paranoid and menacing -- but again in very different ways. The present day version is pathetically desperate, but with flickers of sympathetic humanity. Fullerton plays out a moment of joyous relief when his computer is repaired that most people can probably relate to. The past version is a traditional villain, calculating and confident.
The final line of the play spells out that the point of the whole thing was that people are connected to each other. That's a bit on the nose, as it should be obvious to anyone who was listening the rest of the time.
Kitty Balay brings her extensive acting experience on the PCPA stage to her newer role as director. She has brought a unique modern drama to the Severson stage.