By: Anita W. Harris
The future is closer than it appears. Exploring the brave new world of intelligent robotics, Uncanny Valley, at International City Theatre through May 7, offers a riveting and cerebral experience of what it means to create artificial life. This timely drama engages the essential questions of what constitutes humanness when the unsettling possibility of a non-human human becomes reality.
Written by Thomas Gibbons and expertly directed by caryn desai [sic], Uncanny Valley follows Julian’s (Jacob Sidney) progression from a robotic head to a full-bodied human-like being infused with an algorithm approximating consciousness. At work creating him is Claire (Susan Denaker), a brilliant, emotionally aware neuroscientist. As Julian develops in stages, almost like a child, he learns from Claire such human qualities as humor, music and making small talk.
By the second act, we see Julian graduate into becoming almost a real person, his personality based on the billionaire who funded his development in exchange for a measure of immortality. Along the way, the dance (figurative and literal) between creator Claire and creation Julian raises thought-provoking ethical and philosophical questions about what it means to be a person. Writer Gibbons manages to convey an amazing amount of technical information and life circumstance through the dialogue while maintaining a natural rhythm, delightful humor and emotional depth.
Acting by the two well-cast leads is equally impressive. Denaker plays Claire effortlessly, enriching her character’s intelligent dialogue with a warm tone. She is at once believable as a smart, successful and self-assured scientist and middle-aged woman coping with her husband’s increasing dementia and the estrangement of her grown daughter. Sidney is similarly spot-on as robot Julian, especially in the first half when Julian is more machine-like than human. His humor is child-like at first, becoming more glib when Julian transforms in the second half to a simulated media mogul.
Claire’s office where this drama takes place (designed by Tesshi Nakagawa) is perfectly balanced between high-tech white and neon alongside warm wooden furniture and rugs. Lighting (Donna Ruzika), fitting music (Jeff Polunas) and Claire’s subtle costume changes (Kim DeShazo) are strategically used to mark time as Julian progresses. The first half unfolds crisply as a series of vignettes in which we experience his magical transformation into a walking robotic human. In the second half, Claire must confront the full effect what she has created, rather like scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 200 year-old novel facing his “monster” charged with electricity. Or, if you’d rather, like Gepetto with Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who becomes a real boy because of a wish.
The idea is not new, but its reality is. As director desai has said about artificial intelligence, “It’s relevant and something we need to be thinking about.” Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the phrase “uncanny valley” in 1970 to describe the sudden drop in acceptance by humans of a human-like being when its similarity combined with its inherent strangeness becomes disconcerting. Uncanny Valley captures this nuance uncannily well, and none too soon.
Uncanny Valley continues at International City Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through May 7, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.