Headlines recently trumpeted an endeavor to implant artificial intelligence in humans. Ahhh, let the computer do the thinking while you reach for another bowl of chips — potato, not micro.
This fascination with technology encroaching on humanity (whether you like it or not) drives the smart thematic guts of playwright Madeleine George's "The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence," which had its Twin Cities premiere Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.
George's play hops through time to illustrate three cases of inventors pushing the technological envelope to create the perfect human companion. It's heady, clever stuff but quite talky, and director Leah Cooper's production doesn't find a beating heart.
"Watson" opens with digital whiz kid Eliza (Kathryn Fumie) talking (loudly!) with her human bot Watson (H. Adam Harris). Harris then becomes another Watson who fixes the computer of Eliza's ex-husband, Merrick (Adam Whisner). Merrick, impressed by Watson's ability, asks him to spy on his ex-wife.
Before you can say Tom Stoppard, we're whisked back to Victorian England, where a new Eliza visits Sherlock Holmes' associate, Dr. Watson, and complains about her husband, another Merrick, who is up to something nefarious. Then we will dabble in the era of Alexander Graham Bell ringing up his assistant, Watson, as the telephone is invented.
The time travel is not so confusing as it is just flat and presentational. The key in this theatrical game of three-card monte is technology's advance on humanity — and humanity's eagerness to be overtaken in the name of preserving humanity. Eliza's great idea, for example, is aimed at supplying disadvantaged populations with artificial intelligence that would improve lives.
Cooper's production, played out on a steampunk design (Lance Brockman's set, Kathy Kohl's costumes, Sadie Ward's props), uses a jackhammer to pump up a script that takes a long time to boot up.
Cast away preconceptions about the sonorous voice you'd expect from a speaking bot. Harris shouts like a stentorian Shakespearean actor working in an amphitheater. And from the moment she swipes her cellphone at the beginning of the play, Fumie makes us quite aware that she is an actor on a stage and not a character in a play.
Perhaps Cooper is trying to suggest that Eliza and Watson (in all their iterations) have mixed enough technology into their personalities that they are more robot than human. It is a defensible take, but we struggle to enter a world in which Fumie and Harris seem so manufactured.
Whisner's modulated approach fares better. Both Merricks are ugly humans — a frothing-at-the-mouth political candidate and a schemer intent on inventing an artificial wife. What a cad. So why do we like him best?
Katharine Horowitz contributes an inventive, techie sound design and Michael P. Kittel's lighting scheme plays a subtle machine-gear motif. Overall, though, a 2 ½-hour unsubtle and loud exploration of a juicy idea can get exhausting. Siri, where can I find a pillow?
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.