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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Watson Intelligence — Azuka at Off-Broad Street Theatre

untitled (135)Watson is a name associated with indispensable assistants. Think of Thomas Watson, who heard the first words spoken over a telephone, “Come here, Mr. Watson; I want you,” or of Dr. John Watson, friend and sidekick to Sherlock Holmes, or of Watson, the computer that competed successfully against opponents on the television quiz show, “Jeopardy!”

Madeleine George has thought about all three of these entities and has woven two of them, and the concept of the other, into a play, “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” that posits the attractiveness of artificial intelligence, especially when manifested as a companion we can fashion and manufacture for ourselves in lieu of humans with their inconsistent temperament , random behavior, and, heaven forfend, free will.

Intelligence, whether a quality of the mind or information gleaned by observation, or even spying, is at the core of George’s play. The Watsons she depicts are hermetically linked with genius, Thomas Watson as the technician who built the dozens of prototypes Alexander Graham Bell required to bring his theoretical design for communications over distance to perfection, John Watson who witnessed and chronicled the astounding deduction abilities of the great detective, Holmes, and Watson, the IBM machine crammed with the accumulated knowledge of the centuries and able to summon any bit of it in nanoseconds while activating a “Jeopardy!” buzzer faster than any human contestant can.

Characters in George’s play envision a world in which they won’t have to endure human foibles and imperfections. Inventors, and clients of inventors, actively try to create an artificially intelligent device that resembles a human in all cosmetic ways but that is flawlessly programmed to be the ideal partner for its owner.

George tells several different stories, each one having a character named Merrick who is dissatisfied with life as he knows it and wants to take action to control his wife; a character named Eliza that can either be the insufficient spouse or a woman looking for her own perfect situation or soulmate; and a character named Watson who is the sounding board, catalyst, or physical product that assists each Merrick or Eliza in realizing his or her aims.

George’s mélange of plot lines and time periods creates an entertaining mix played with intelligence and wit by Corinna Burns, David Bardeen, and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen for Azuka Theatre’s production of “The Watson Intelligence” directed by Allison Heishman.

You have genuine, in contrast to virtual, fun seeing one of the Elizas attempt to craft a man who can satisfy a need of hers no human male can, a desire for smart and stimulating company. This Eliza is truly cleverer than most people and finds the everyday chatter and personal reflections of the average companion boring. She would rather be on her own than be subjected to gossip, excitement about shopping, or even the ups and downs of her estranged husband’s political campaign to be the chief auditor of their city. Her husband, a man named Merrick, suspecting that Eliza’s alienation from him means she is having an adulterous affair, enlists a guy named Watson, sent to his office by a computer repair service’s Dweeb Squad, to shadow his wife and tell him where she goes and who she sees.

A second Eliza comes to Sherlock Holmes to show the sleuth mysterious symmetrical marks that look as if they have been engraved on her hands in a specific and purposeful pattern. This Eliza doesn’t quite meet Holmes. She is greeted by Dr. Watson, who is sympathetic to her plight and promises to look into it. This leads to him tailing Eliza’s husband, a man named Merrick, by railway from London to Derbyshire, where Merrick, aware he is being stalked, confronts him and tells Watson his ideas for a more pleasant marriage based on a 19th century form of artificial intelligence.

In another plot line, Thomas Watson prepares for a radio interview in which he’s asked by a reporter, Eliza Merrick, to give basic information about the day he answered Bell’s order to come to him, but who ends up making an interesting comment about communication instead.

All the threads are well-written and engaging. George is a witty and resourceful playwright who has a knack for making her material amusing for an audience and fascinating for anyone who wants to take her imaginative concept a few steps further.

“The Watson Intelligence” grabs your attention for its entirety. For all of its quality and ability to entertain, it lacks one major element that frustrates total enjoyment of the play and Heishman’s excellent production. George never brings her material to a point. You watch, waiting for something that gathers the pieces of “The Watson Intelligence” and form them into a neat bow, but this never happens. Moment by moment, you stay focused on and diverted by George’s dialect and the delightful performances from Burns, Bardeen, and Stanton-Ameisen. It’s OK that at intermission, George’ s play has not coalesced to a degree that its overriding intention seems clear. That same omission begins to cause concern midway through the second act and remains unanswered at the play’s conclusion.

Bravo to Azuka, Allison Heishman, and her cast. Kudos to Madeleine George for composing such a smart and thought-provoking piece. I left the theater satisfied at being in the presence of George’s nimble mind and at seeing talented actors bring all of George’s cleverness to life, but I wondered what George was ultimately saying and why she didn’t make what I think to be her conclusion clearer and more forceful.

For much of the play, and to two of its character’s, artificial intelligence is something devoutly to be wished. Eliza may have misanthropic reasons for wanting to perfect her conversational companion, but they make sense in the context of her life and from the reasoning she gives for working to build a man who can talk of scientific development and technical possibilities that will interest her.

The Merrick that Dr. Watson follows to Derbyshire is more nefarious. He is unhappy with the reception his wife gives him when he returns home to her, and in a blatantly misogynistic, but hilariously naughty, move, he wants to replace her hands with mechanical appendages that can massage him, soothe him, and sensuously manipulate where and how he chooses.

In both cases, George has major characters who favor artificial intelligence and consider it a vast improvement on their current relationships with self-governing humans. Artificial intelligence is attractive to the person who has neither the patience nor the tolerance for someone else having his or her own mind or, in Eliza’s case, speaking one’s thoughts and tiring her to distraction that brings suicide, or murder, to mind.

The approach is both satirical and futuristic. Altering someone who is living in away that renders her mechanical is demented and criminal. Constructing someone to be your friend and mate, one that can be reprogrammed if your tastes, needs, or interests change, has possibilities that please on some level that includes the potential for total harmony, consistence, and peace.

Against these constructs, you have a story about Bell’s practical invention that benefits, or at least affects, multitudes and is generally positive (except when a telephone rings while you’re trying to write!). Bell’s Watson just wants to get the story right and correct the popular idea that Bell said, “I want to see you” rather than “I want you,” a semantic difference Thomas Watson thinks of as speaking volumes.

I can see why George would not want to commit to a thesis that says artificial intelligence is preferable to pure human interaction, flaws, foibles, and all. Even though the programming genius, Eliza, seems to be on to something, the idea that a robot should replace a human in significant social interactions is clinical and frightening. Especially since it’s clear Eliza can receive a bountiful measure of pleasure and satisfaction from one human who enters her life clumsily but unexpectedly.

A rapprochement between Eliza and her politician husband hints that George agrees that human interaction might be best after all. But “The Watson Intelligence” offers so strong endorsement for the status quo either. George seems to lean towards humans communing fully with humans, but she is not firm or persuasive about that position.

To a large extent, the audience is left hanging, but the confusion and chance to consider what you think is worth it to experience George’s shrewd play and see Heishman’s staging at Azuka.

One aside: I am guessing, because George never states anything absolutely, that George is being satirical when Eliza’s husband reveals his campaign platform that support minimal government and the responsibility of the individual to sustain his or life. Arch or not, I support everything Candidate Merrick says and would gladly vote for any politician who sincerely advanced his views and policies.

Allison Heishman’s production for Azuka moves smoothly and makes all of George’s plots and themes clear.

Corinna Burns is outstanding as the primarily Eliza, the one building a man who communicates empathy and only wants to help, as all the Watsons in George’s play do. Eliza is particularly keen on striking any foul language she utters from her mechanical man’s vocabulary and has programmed a charming way for him to let her know when he’s befuddled or confused.

Burns in the embodiment of human intelligence. Everything about her characters and her portrayals is smart. As the inventor, she looks so competent and self-assured. She is command of her world, and she has the technical and scientific understanding to realize a successful example of artificial intelligence.

Burns makes you feel stupid every time she rolls her eyes at something she hears that is inane and each time she talks about the Utopia she can have if she fully succeeds in getting her invention to be her companion.

This is an Eliza who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She is a woman of high intellect and in control of her life. Burns expresses this superiority well and convinces she would be a formidable match for “Jeopardy’s” Watson. (Coincidentally, a “Jeopardy” contestant that outfoxed Watson, CelesteDiNucci, was in the Azuka audience the evening I saw “The Watson Intelligence.”)

Burns only shows vulnerability when it comes to a torrid romance with the Dweeb named Watson her husband hired to spy on her. Animated though it is, the affair ends when Eliza realizes the Dweeb is not necessarily stupid but sees the ideal life as living in nature and eschewing urban society.

In a totally different vein, Burns wins your regard as firmly as she gains Dr. Watson’s in the scene in which she comes to consult with the great Sherlock Holmes. She expresses unease and urgency in an affecting way and is quite precise in describing the torment her husband is causing her and the odd markings on her hands.

The computer-assembling Eliza has some good comic lines, but Burns is funniest as a no-nonsense radio reporter who is trying to coach Thomas Watson to be brief and to the point when he talks about his work with Bell in an interview taking place in 1931, the fifty-fifth anniversary of Bell’s summons to him.

David Bardeen is entertainingly agitated as the political candidate, Merrick, who is frustrated by his intermittently working computer and obsessed with the doings of his wife, whom he believes left him to pursue another man.

Bardeen plays irritation and sarcasm well. Like his estranged wife, he is not a man who likes trifling talk or conversation that doesn’t pertain to matter of political policy, or of winning his race to be auditor. This Merrick has snappy answers to mundane questions, and Bardeen reels off his joke lines adroitly.

As the Merrick who wants to replace his wife’s actual body parts with more controllable prosthetics, Bardeen never betrays any irony while talking to Dr. Watson about his insidious plan.

On the contrary, his Merrick is all logic and all cheery British pride in having the knowhow to bring about artificial intelligence along with the plan and determination to do it.

Bardeen gives depth and texture to a man who no morals who believes getting what we wants is a victory over his wife’s reluctance to please him. He is comic while being scary.

Griffin Stanton-Ameisen has a gymnastic time of it as the various Watsons. He is under desks, darting behind artificial trees, and jumping into and out of beds as the Dweeb who is sexually interesting to his prey. Conversely, he has to be fairly static and mechanically repetitive as the prototype of the man Eliza is creating to be her companion. He is officious and a tad bumbling as Holmes’s Watson and gentlemanly if insistent as Bell’s assistant.

Through all of his character and costume changes, Stanton-Ameisen finds a way to make each of his portrayals distinctive and amusing. He is adept and maintaining the same tone and inflection while doing lines Eliza’s construction has to repeat several times. He shows a dopey but sweet innocence has the Dweeb who is also a good lover. He has bluster yet stature as Holmes’s Watson and adds some justified doddering to Bell’s Watson.

Janus Stefanowicz cleverly constructed costumes to be adaptable and removable. It is entertaining to watch Bardeen exchange his 21st century necktie for a 19th century foulard or to see Stanton-Ameisen dive in and out of his Dweeb uniform when the urge for flagrante hits. And when it ends. Burns’s garb as the Victorian Eliza is quite handsome and appropriate. Dirk Durossette’s scenery satisfies a lot of uses and makes moving between time and settings efficient.

“The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” runs through Sunday, November 23, produced by Azuka Theatre at the Off-Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with some discounts available and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by visiting www.azukatheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

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