12 February 2006
The goddess from the machine
It's horribly unromantic to say so, but art depends for its very existence on artifice: things we think are wondrous tend to originate with things that are decidedly prosaic or worse.
Alan Ayckbourn's play Comic Potential, which I saw today at the University of Central Oklahoma, is about the worse, and how its line of separation from the better becomes obscured, even erased. Chandler Tate, once a comic director who worked with the Big Names, is reduced in his later years to directing a television soap opera, one for which the expectations are so low that there is no actual cast: rather, there are "actoids," androids designed to a physical type and then programmed with their lines. This, of course, requires software, and software always has glitches, and in the very first scene, the pretentious physician is mixing up his vowel sounds. The technicians can fix that, sort of, but the nurse is actually busting out laughing on stage, and no one quite knows why.
It doesn't help when Adam Trainsmith, nephew of the network owner and (though he doesn't realize it) boy toy of a female network executive, shows up at the studio, thoroughly awed by Tate's oeuvre and fancying himself to be a writer of comedy. Tate brushes him off, of course, but there's a brief period when Adam finds himself left alone with one of the actoids the presumably-defective Juvenile Character, Female unit who played the nurse and discovers that somewhere in her dubious microcode there might just be a sense of comic timing.
No problem with that, until they redo the medical scene and instead of laughing, the JCF unit does a double-take worthy of James Finlayson. Tate is impressed in spite of himself, and Adam prevails upon Tate to let him work up scenes with the mechanical starlet, whom he now calls "Jacie."
And this might have come off, except that old Mr Trainsmith, sort of Rupert Murdoch without the charisma, sees Jacie as a threat and wants her sent back to the factory to be "melted down" her accumulated memory erased and her microcode reinstalled. Adam, horrified, smuggles her out of the network facilities and into a hotel room, while he tries to figure out just how to save the poor girl, inasmuch as he's fallen in love with her and all.
Unfortunately, Jacie has problems adapting to life outside the studio: while she picks up cues quickly enough, all she knows is the thousands of lines of script she's had impressed upon her. And even more unfortunately, with all this new information having to be processed by her electronic brain, she seems to be achieving some sort of sentience.
Yeah, yeah: The Stepford Actors. But it's not so simple as that. For one thing, Adam, young and callow, has barely more concept of love than Jacie; for another, he can't bring himself to treat her like a machine, and she has no experience with anything else. And Sir Alan has no trouble blurring the lines between them: the ability to fall in love and the ability to laugh, quintessentially human characteristics, are inherently "grossly illogical," he says, and there's some question whether we handle them any more deftly than poor Jacie.
The three leads here all have difficult roles to play. Chandler Tate (Robert Keitch) drowns his depression in drink, but it never affects his critical judgment when the tape is rolling: well past his prime, he still won't compromise on the basics. Adam (David Schroeder) is so intoxicated by the sheer delight his artificial girlfriend finds in the mundane moments of life that he's willing to overlook the very real problems inherent in the relationship. (What happens when she drinks too much never mind, I won't spoil it for you.)
None of this would work, of course, if you don't believe Jacie, and Courtney Drumm is a wonder: she absolutely nails this character, this mechanical creature being forced to respond to stimuli for which no programming exists, sometimes having to shift among various preset playbacks literally in mid-sentence; yet all the while she's fulfilling the Asimovian expectations of her
Regrets? Just one: that I caught the last performance, which means that I can't tell you to dash up to Edmond and see it.Posted at 6:12 PM to Almost Yogurt