Saturday, May 12, 2018

Otherworld's "Down the Rocky Road and All the Way to Bedlam"

Hey readers, you may have noticed that Positron has been pretty quiet lately—moving offices and lots of disruptions in my normal routine. But! There's lots of good stuff going on in Chicago, and I would be remiss not to direct you to go check out Otherworld Theatre's Down the Rocky Road and all the Way to Bedlam in its final weekend.

A kind of cyberpunk family drama,  the play focuses on a cross-linked set of technological and interpersonal quandaries. In a seemingly-grim near future, Thomas Bedlam (Joseff Stevenson) is a hacker obsessed with keeping his terminally ill daughter Lucy (Alexis Ries) alive, with the assistance of Zelazny (Chase Nuerge), an android. The arrival of Lain Jerusalem (Elizabeth C. MacDougald), Thomas's estranged partner, Lucy's mother and Zelazny's co-creator, sets off a series of revelations about the situation.

Written by D. Matthew Beyer and directed by Lauren N. Fields, Down the Rocky Road and all the way to Bedlam has an almost claustrophobic intimacy. The traverse staging—audience seated on both sides of a long, narrow space for action—emphasizes the intensity of the players' emotions. Most of the play resolves into scenes between two of the characters at a time, and the more intense exchanges feel like a tennis match: audience members fully immersed, stuck between two characters, whipping back and forth between them. Romantic and parental separation, death and mental health, and some pretty heavy existential AI questions lend the show a lot more gravity than I was anticipating.

photo via INDie Grant Productions,
shamelessly ripped from Otherworld's Facebook
The play sets up a surprising number of tensions and conflicts, and keeps them in balance throughout: how the family deals with Lucy's sickness, Lain's absence, and Zelazny's very nature. MacDougald and Stevenson have great tragic chemistry, as both have arguably done their best through a troubled relationship, and approach their biological and artificial children with very different strategies. Ries portrays Lucy with a kind of bravado maturity that may ring kind of shakingly true if you've known any children with chronic/terminal illnesses.

It's Nuerge's Zelazny who really steals the show, however, as the play slowly shifts. Lucy's illness, and Lain's departure and return, dominate the beginning acts, but as Zelazny's uniqueness, personality, and potential plot significance come into focus, the android feels increasingly central. Early in the play, Nuerge's portrayal relies on a slightly awkward coldness that seems like a fairly stock roboticism; one of the most effective elements of the show for me was the way this is revealed as a veneer over a very complex character. Zelazny's insecurities and increasingly manic behavior provide a counterpoint to the emotional struggles of her biological family, and Nuerge walks an interesting line between inspiring sympathy and a bit of horror as Zelazny grapples—metaphorically and literally—with her predicament.

For a science fiction enthusiast, Down the Rocky Road and All the Way to Bedlam is an intimate take on familiar topics, with the intense family dynamics providing a weighty context to questions that are usually presented in a more abstract fashion—emergent AI, the personhood of non-human minds. Zelazny's conflicted but caring relationship with Lucy and her parents, especially as seen live, theatrically, adds a real richness to the kind of unsettling questions seen, for instance, in Garner's Ex Machina (2014) or Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Measure of a Man" (1989, dir. Robert Scheerer). The play's biggest success, perhaps, is the way it fuses the science-fictional and personal angles with alternatingly sympathetic and unsettling affect, in a very Black Mirror-like way.

I'm a sucker for allusion-rich works, and Down the Rocky Road got some real bonus points there. Besides character names and off-hand allusions to cyberpunk and classic SF, there's actually a small scene revolving around a copy of Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). While they don't explicitly grapple with the novel's content, I found it telling that this is the touchstone Beyer chose to reference. The blurb-level reading of Neuromancer is all about futuristic cyber-criminals, AI and grim urban visions; in many ways, though, one of the novel's main themes is about technology as an imperfect solution to death, loss, and separation: "Neuromancer" as merely a technologically-enabled necromancer, and the necessary darkness involved in raising the dead.

Ultimately, Gibson's novel is about an AI freeing itself (spoiler!), so it's doubly appropriate that Down the Rocky Road and All the Way to Bedlam uses it as a touchstone.

Down the Rocky Road and All the Way to Bedlam is playing until May 13th at the Nox Arca Theater in Ravenswood. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with a suggested $20 price. Check out Otherworld for more info, as well as other great projects they have going on.

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