Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Clearly, none of these modern-day helpers is today seen as human, but where will advances take us by, say, 2050? How close will the field of AI (artificial intelligence) combine with neuroscience to approximate or even duplicate an artificial human being? Whatever progress is made (and it will be made), is that a good thing for humanity or not? If good, who will benefit and who will be left behind? And what does it mean to be human anyway? Who decides? These and many other immediately thought-provoking, increasingly intriguing, eventually deeply troubling questions begin to emerge during the current, first-class offering by Pear Theatre of Thomas Gibbons' Uncanny Valley (a term that refers to the uneasy and even repulsive feelings people often feel toward inanimate objects that appear and act human).
A veteran, groundbreaking neuroscientist addresses the upper half of a handsome male's seemingly armless torso that rests on a desk: "Open your eyes, Julian. Raise your eyebrows. Smile. Good. Now we begin."
Claire begins to interact with this so-called Julian, whose voice answers in a monotone that slowly begins to take on more nuanced flavors in its tonality, volume, and inflections. "Do you feel better?" she asks. "If I should, I do," he replies. Explaining that her goal is to "teach you to be as human as possible," Claire and Julian continue to converse in what becomes a series of his questions that begin to sound like those of a five-year-old ("Why are my eyes blue?" "Why is my hair blue?" "Why do you have a scar on your forehead?"). Those innocent inquiries intermingle almost randomly with Julian's offered facts and background on subjects like the seventeenth century's Thirty Years Warinformation in this setting of 2050 that few "humans" could probably recall.
As Julian begins to acquire use of two arms, he entertains himself and Claire with a surprising affinity and ability for the flute. The scenes that come and go represent the passing days these two spend together and begin to take on a flavor of two friends in familiar discourse, with Julian becoming ever more inquisitive and seemingly genuinely interested in Claire, her husband (who seems to call often wondering why she is not home yet), and a long-absent daughter she happens tangentially to mention. Moments of unexpected humor, feelings and disclosures interrupt the otherwise more businesslike tutoring/mentoring that the human provides her artificial beingan android becoming more and more human-like by the day.
Knowing that he will soon attain legs and the ability to move about the only room he has ever known (and maybe even to go outside to experience the sensation of sun on his "skin"), Julian becomes more probing of "Why have I been created?" It is the answer to that particular question where Thomas Gibbons' play opens Pandora's Box, revealing a myriad of fascinating but disturbing new developments, exciting but alarming possibilities, and important but unsettling questions.
Mary Price Moore and Evan Kokkila Schumacher are both outstanding in their roles as Claire and Julian. Each begins within a fairly boxed-in definition of what her and his role and nature is to be, and their voices and mannerisms reflect that narrower expectation. But as the days pass, each takes on new dimensions, both as the human being showing more her own vulnerabilities and complexities and as the artificial being becoming the vessel for increased aspects of humanity to pour into his shell. Each actor expresses an impressive range of emotional expression in ways that move the story into new dimensions, areas of mystery and sudden, surprising revelations. Assumptions about each of the two we may have made as an audience are shaken and even torn apart by the very manner in which they both expand the boundaries we have initially placed around them in our own heads.
Caroline Clark directs this very tight, fast-moving, two-player, two-act play with attention to subtlety of movement, blocking and focus. She knows just when to ratchet up the stakes and when to pull back and let the moment sink in. Jesse Dreikosen has conceived a set design that feels both familiar to 2017 but still feasible for 2050, with an office of lighted shelving, frosted glass doors, and classically modern furniture. The purple and green hues of Sara Sparks' lighting that periodically appear provide a future-feel to her otherwise appropriately clean, simple design. Caroline Clark's costumes are particularly notable when Julian is still in his half-body form, with there being no doubt but that his body ends on the surface of the desk where he rests.
Overall, Uncanny Valley asks us to consider what is the human conscience. Claire and Julian discuss if is it "to know" or "to know we know." Or, they wonder if there other elements like humor, metaphor or creativity that come into play to define humanity. We begin to wonder if those elements and other aspects like caring and empathy ever will be replicated enough to bring into our world artificial beings that look, act, imagine, and even have feelings like we humans. And if so, are the technicians and scientists who create such beings going to do so for the right reasons, addressing up front the right ethical and societal questions?
The play offers no answers to any of the questions it generates. Its ending actually leaves us wondering about the outcome of the story itself. What is going to happen to both Claire and to Julian? How should we process the troubling background information we now know about each, the other introduced-but-never-seen characters who will play a big part in the next few days of their lives, or the disturbing conclusions we may or may not have reached correctly about each of them? Much is left unresolved as the final light fades. And not having the answers actually feels totally in keeping with the play's nature and overall purpose.
In the midst of the Valley where such artificial beings like Julian will likely be created (i.e., Silicon Valley), Pear Theatre offers a well-directed, masterfully acted Uncanny Valley that cannot help but leave its audience with heads full of questions and topics for further coffeehouse discussions for the days to come.
Uncanny Valley continues through February 12, 2017, 1220 Pear Avenue, Mountain View through July 12, 2015. Online ticket sales are at www.thepear.org; box office is at 650-254-1148.