Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: Josephine K and the Algorithms
Guilty As Charged
We live in a digitized society where everything we do is recorded, monitored, and evaluated in some fashion. Watches can track your physical activity, surveillance cameras see you everywhere you go, credit and debit cards note every transaction you make, and every online purchase tries to match you to possible future purchases based on your previous history. Smart phones and personal computers of all shapes and sizes fuel your social media, online presence that presents streams of information about you, while retaining things you would rather weren’t known. Things which even deleting your browser history won’t make disappear, which in the wrong hands could have devastating consequences. Exploring life in the digital age, Stacey Gregg’s latest play, “Josephine K and the Algorithms,” borrows from Franz Kafka to craft a work that purports to be an amped up version of a familiar world. Alas, despite its ambitious intentions, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been said before, and said, and presented better. Long winded despite its fifty minute length, with little new insights or points of interest to offer, “Josephine K and the Algorithms,” delivers a thunderously dull experience founded on a surprisingly weak script.
Loosely based on Kafka’s The Trial, “Josephine K and the Algorithms” sees the eponymous Josephine K waking on her birthday to find a man in her apartment eating her breakfast. As they converse in a stunted fashion, he informs her she has been arrested and will have to face trial for something he’s not able to tell her. Going about her daily business, Josephine begins to ask questions about the trial, and herself, but answers are not forthcoming. All of which leads Josephine to conclude she must be in some way complicit in every conceivable ill of modern society, from global warming to promoting pornography. Her defense speech at her trial sees her become a hashtag celeb of a kind, but it really doesn’t matter. In a world where the court finances once were rebels, activism and protest are little more than emojis you can use to promote your moral portfolio or else be damned for. It’s all just a potential catastrophe waiting to happen when you can be judged, and condemned, by virtue of your online information.
From 1984, to Anthem, to Snowden, and The Trial, as well as through countless other examples, tales of an intrusive society that sees, judges, and ultimately controls everything its people say or do have proven to be fertile ground for some thought provoking works over the decades. Such is not the case with “Josephine K and the Algorithms.” It’s not just that Gregg’s dialogue feels stunted and underdeveloped throughout, and its character's interactions uninteresting as a result, it's also that the script has little of interest to say with regards to the questions it sets out to address. Whether as an algorithm, the court officer Jordan, or the activist Caleb, sound designer Carl Kennedy’s one size fits all delivery might want to suggest we’re all impersonal algorithms at the end of the day, but it only succeeds in reinforcing “Josephine K and the Algorithms” feeling of near lifelessness, which Kennedy's sound design somewhat compensates for. Orla Fitzgerald as Josephine K undertakes a thankless task, often crafting moments that spark with throwaway charm. Yet Fitzgerald’s interactions with Kennedy make "Josephine K and the Algorithms” feel like an early script reading of a work in progress. Director Caitriona McLaughlin’s decision to play “Josephine K and the Algorithms” in the round causes more problems than any possible benefits it might yield, as does Kate Moylan’s set design, with performers essentially obscured to large portions of the audience for long periods. All of which undermine other visual aspects of Moylan’s design, such as her emoji balloons, which look quite impressive.
In a post-Snowden landscape, “Josephine K and the Algorithms” has little to offer on the question of media monitoring and digital intrusion. Indeed, with many colleges and employers now looking at your social media presence as a matter of form, its efforts to interrogate the normalization of these practices brings little of interest to the table. With its script feeling both thematically, and theatrically, under developed, everything else suffers as a consequence. Which is a shame, for Gregg is a far better writer than “Josephine K and the Algorithms” would suggest, feeling, as it does, like a cheap Kafkaesque knock-off. Thank God for the bird cat, which brought some much-needed humour. As well as a reminder of just how truly imaginative and engaging Gregg can be.
“Josephine K and the Algorithms,” by Stacey Gregg, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 21st