The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

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 species model number, she has to somehow contend with the possibility that she may be turning into something else — someone else — entirely. How could Adam not fall for her? Under the circumstances, I think I could have.

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


A new take on classics; they were somewhat more pessimistic and cynical about the perspectives of the relationship:

"...ELLOCHKA THE CANNIBAL

William Shakespeare's vocabulary has been estimated by the experts at
twelve thousand words. The vocabulary of a Negro from the Mumbo Jumbo tribe
amounts to three hundred words.
Ellochka Shukin managed easily and fluently on thirty.
Here are the words, phrases and interjections which she fastidiously
picked from the great, rich and expressive Russian language:
1. You're being vulgar.
2. Ho-ho (expresses irony, surprise, delight, loathing, joy, contempt
and satisfaction, according to the circumstances).
3. Great!
4. Dismal (applied to everything-for example: "dismal Pete has
arrived", "dismal weather", or a "dismal cat").
5. Gloom.
6. Ghastly (for example: when meeting a close female acquaintance, "a
ghastly meeting").
7. Kid (applied to all male acquaintances, regardless of age or social
position).
8. Don't tell me how to live!
9. Like a babe ("I whacked him like a babe" when playing cards, or "I
brought him down like a babe," evidently when talking to a legal tenant).
10.Ter-r-rific!
11. Fat and good-looking (used to describe both animate and inanimate
objects).
12. Let's go by horse-cab (said to her husband).
13. Let's go by taxi (said to male acquaintances).
14. You're all white at the back! (joke).
15. Just imagine!
16. Ula (added to a name to denote affection-for example: Mishula,
Zinula).
17. Oho! (irony, surprise, delight, loathing, joy, contempt and
satisfaction).
The extraordinary small number of words remaining were used as
connecting links between Ellochka and department-store assistants.
If you looked at the photographs of Ellochka Shukin which her husband,
engineer Ernest Pavlovich Shukin, had hanging over his bed (one profile and
the other full-face), you would easily see her pleasantly high and curved
forehead, big liquid eyes, the cutest little nose in the whole of the
province of Moscow, and a chin with a small beauty spot.
Men found Ellochka's height flattering. She was petite, and even the
puniest little men looked hefty he-men beside her.
She had no particular distinguishing features; she did not need them.
She was pretty."


[for the full text go here]

Posted by: Tatyana at 10:49 AM on 13 February 2006