Once again the Elite Theatre Company has used its South Stage to produce a timely and well-worth watching play. Uncanny Valley features a relatively unusual casting configuration: pitting a young male part for the robot against an older female part for his creator.
Angella DiCicco reveals she’s done a lot of theatre and delivers an enjoyable and sympathetic Claire, a robotics and artificial intelligence genius who is working on her crowning creation: Julian. Kenneth Looper plays an evolving Julian. His work as a partially complete robot, especially in the opening couple scenes is appropriately uncanny and quite funny. In fact, the Julian as disembodied head is hilarious.
Kenneth Looper and Angela DiCicco in Thomas Gibbons' Uncanny Valley at the Elite Theatre Company South Stagethrough 3 April 2016.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elite Theatre.
The Uncanny Valley title refers to the curve for how humans feel about an artificial being as it approaches a more human look and feel. The research has been done for objects, like robots, as well as two-dimensional renderings such as animation characters.
Starting with something like a metal box and a voice, the curve starts with a level of very little resemblance to humans and very little human empathy or feeling of familiarity felt by humans who encounter it. Then as the object or character takes on anthropomorphic features the level of empathy and familiarity increases rapidly.
For example, R2D2 and singing squirrels start getting very high marks. This continues as you approach human likeness in all characteristics until you reach a point very near to being fully human but not quite there. At some point the curve drops off a cliff, reaching depths as we approach near-life-like-human-likeness where the not-quite-human being starts to generate feelings of eeriness to outright horror in humans.
This drop-off in the curve has been called the “uncanny valley”- - the valley or deep dip in the curve when a likeness seems almost human, but uncannily not quite human.
Psychologists have suggested this effect is due to our response to corpses, human bodies that are no longer alive. Filmmakers have long exploited this in the whole zombie thing, where our response is only removed from the uncanny valley by the distancing of irony or humor.
Since Claire is trying to create a very lifelike human robot, she is going to have to cross this uncanny valley. Of course, one of the difficulties in producing a sense of the uncanny valley effect in a play like this is that the robot is played by an actor, and thus being a human, we immediate do not react to him with the uncanny valley effect.
Never mind, though, the play works anyway. It succeeds in raising a lot of questions and gets us thinking in several intriguing directions, but most importantly, DiCicco and Looper do an admirable job with their characters, giving us an evening of pleasant theatre.
The whole production is well-thought out, from sound to set.
One of the problems with the Elite Theatre’s situation is that way too many people seem to think that South Stage productions, which are definitely minimal-budget affairs, are somehow second-string productions and to be ignored, when in fact, the exact opposite is true: some of the most important, and well done, plays on the Elite calendar appear on the South Stage. Not to mention that the acting on the South Stage is often top notch.
This is one of those plays.
A lot of credit to DiCicco and Looper for succeeding, too, for if there is any problem with this play it is with the play itself. But that doesn’t seem to detract much from the experience of this production.
As for the script, its got a few problems. It is confusing on several levels: it takes us in several directions and more or less changes directions half-way through. The actors are able to make this work because  they are very good and  we sort of expect something to alter significantly once the robot is fully functional. But Gibbons, the author, takes things in an almost entirely different direction than the play we’ve watched up till then, in the process literally dropping a host of plot and dramatic possibilities in favor of a whole new list of issues of an entirely different philosophical and technical order.
The play starts as a play about an evolving robot and the relationship between this robot and its creator, Claire. Then it shifts into a quite different situation, and in the end becomes more of a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s, not the film versions. The soul of the monster is at stake here.
Since the title is Uncanny Valley, one might expect that as the robot evolves in the first half of the play, that issues around the uncanny valley would arise. They really don’t. This is the first confusion. The play is essentially not at all about anything to do with the uncanny valley. It is really about the relationship between Claire and the robot-in-process, Julian.
Along the way there are interesting discussion points regarding robots, artificial intelligence and feedback-loop learning, all relevant and appropriate to the creation of an AI. OK, so we are in a play about AI. Good enough.
But once Julian is fully operational, the scientists then drop a very wealthy man’s consciousness into the robot. Successfully. Wait. What? That’s not AI, that’s replication of a living consciousness, a whole different can of worms.
Since the actors make the play work and the audience is more than willing to go along with this relatively common Sci-Fi trope it works OK on stage. On one level.
But on another level it’s, whoa. What?
We’ve just been watching a story wrapped around the difficulties of creating an AI. Then we drop a human consciousness into it? Second level of confusion.
That’s like watching a story about trying to build a rocket ship to get to the moon and then someone gets a part shipped from the other side of the universe, 13 billion light years away to complete the job. It’s contradictory and absurd, it makes no sense, science-wise. The difficulty of replicating a human consciousness and transferring it is extremely, hugely, more than astronomically more difficult and advanced than building a robotic AI. We are building robotic AIs right now. We are probably thousands of years away from replicating a human consciousness and physically transferring it, if that is even possible. Two entirely different levels of problem.
Not to mention it raises an entirely different set of questions which lead to the third level of confusion: The play without warning turns into a completely different play about completely different issues.
In the end Gibbons tries to salvage continuity with a clumsy attempt at circling around to the uncanny valley idea. Doesn’t quite work, because it doesn’t fit the rest of the play and doesn’t make sense either psychologically or scientifically.
Too bad, for the Frankenstein motif does not require the jump. It is still in AI and robotics territory. The jump in the play feels a bit like an unnecessary cheap-shot deux-ex-machina glossing over of some of the initial otherwise unresolved dramatic points of the play’s first half. What happened to Claire’s feelings? What about the original Julian before he becomes Julian 3 or 4 or whatever? What about all the implications of all that neural-networked feedback looping of the first five scenes? Does THAT Julian achieve consciousness? And a dozen other questions, the asking of which would only provide plot spoilers. Who knows? Who cares? Gibbons doesn’t seem to.
Fortunately the actors and director do, plunge ahead anyway, and do a good job of it. Just go see the play and have some fun.
Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons
Starring Angela DiCicco and Kenneth Looper
Directed by John Slade
Produced by Ezra Eells and Chelsea Vivian with Vivien Latham Managing Producer, Nathan Thomas, Stage Manager and Sheryl Jo Bedal, Costumes, Jon Elick, Set Design, Bob Decker, Set Construction, Pat Lawler, Light and Sound.
At the Elite Theatre, South StageTheatre, Oxnard, California
performances: Special limited engagement
Saturday 26 March 2 pm
Friday 1 April 8 pm, Saturday 2 April 2 pm, and Sunday 3 April 7 pm.
call 805.483.5118 for tickets and reservations.
or go to EliteTheatre.org to purchase tickets online.