Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: ELIZA'S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley
Fake It Till You Make It
AI. Artificial Intelligence. The encroaching age of cyborgs, robots, humanoids. Writers like Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus argue that it’s only a matter of time before science fiction becomes science fact, when the interface between biology and technology redefines what it means to be human. Or will it? Inspired by MIT’s artificial intelligence software developed in the 1960s, Pan Pan Theatre’s divine misadventure, “ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” sees humanoid beings, some possibly human, whose creator has inexplicably cleared off, struggling to figure it all out. With their limited programming they’re learning how to live as carbon based life forms known as humans. Or is that as carbon copies? Asking all the big existential questions, and many smaller ones too, “ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” takes a philosophical scattergun to what it means to be human. A theatrical delight, with many smart laughs along the way, “ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” slips up a little for trying to be all questions to all answers, like a philosophical jack of all trades, as intelligence and artificial intelligence, the real and the reproduced, collide.
Set designer Aedin Cosgrove’s warm yet impersonal motel room houses five guests, probably humanoids, who wrestle with questions of life, death, sex, self, and what it means to be human. Existential dread looms large as these human imitations try to imitate humanity. Or try to perform it. The results are less than impressive. Banana peel jokes don’t seem to land as well as they should and even classic works from Beethoven sound like background music in an elevator, which Si Schroeder’s sound design captures beautifully, alongside an impressive score. Their endless quest for hyper-normalisation generates a dysfunctional group dynamic that’s all too recognisible. Even with psychological counselling, or is that conditioning, from the machine-like Mrs H, a superb Jane McGrath, they all still struggle to be. The alpha male-ish Marvin, an engaging Andrew Bennett, and the exasperated Sophia, a delightful and limber Amy Molloy, might seem to be getting there, but they’ve made an appointment to have sex one hundred years from today. The attention deficit Eric, being deficit in attention from everyone around him, rages against the injustice of his life, wonderfully played by Dylan Tighe. Meanwhile Eliza, a captivating Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, tries to rationalise herself into a growing self-conscious awareness. But whatever their collective logics tell them, the poetic, the humorous, the creative, and the emotional, keep tripping them up. For anyone can lifelessly mimic a hug, or even a bed bath, or a joke, and make it appear human. That don’t make it human. Or does it? Still, there’s always the try again reset of tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.
Both simulation and simulacrum, "ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” delivers high on laughs as its futile five try to fake it till they make it. Written by Eugene O’Brien and Gavin Quinn, and directed with understated exuberance by Quinn, "ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” delivers lots of theatrical, thought provoking treats. Katherine O’Malley's superb movement direction, with its awkward patterns and gazes, suggests an uneasy contact where the human and the humanoid meet. Textually, its heavy existential questioning proves to be both its saving grace and its downfall. Feeling like the person who constantly lets you know they know the secret yet refuses to tell you, "ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” start conversations, drops hints and clues, then swaddles off leaving you wondering what you’d just heard before starting off on another conversation. And there are lot of conversations. Some smart, some funny, some thought provoking, all linked by the tension between the real and the reproduced, and the ability of the reproduced to mirror something real. Or be a thing in itself. Like theatre perhaps.
Seriously smart, with a hint of science sexy, ”ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” comes at you any which way and in no particular order, delivering lots of laughs along the way. Yet its all-you-can-eat existential buffet, presented as tasty theatrical tapas, overloads the table. Leaving you to pick and mix, wondering about the ones you didn’t get, hoping you haven’t missed out on the main course. Or, God forbid, wherever He is, the dessert. But my, aren’t some of those tapas tasty?
”ELIZA’S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley” by Eugene O’Brien and Gavin Quinn, presented by Pan Pan Theatre, ran at The Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018