When we first meet Julian (Alex Podulke), he’s a talking head.
The brainchild of techies and artificial intelligence scientist Claire (Barbara Kingsley), Julian is a robot learning to be life-like. Under the patient tutelage of Claire, Julian’s voice loses its robotic cadences, his smile relaxes into naturalness and his blinking seems reflexive.
But he’s not human. Yet. In the eerie opening scenes of Uncanny Valley, Thomas Gibbons’ riveting exploration of robotics and the relationship between the creator and the creation, Julian is a head on a desk in an otherwise nondescript corporate office.
The transformation of Julian fascinates and although he pontificates on the Thirty Years War and other erudite topics, his gradual opening up and dependence on Claire resembles the interactions between mother and baby.
Julian acquires the use of one arm, then another. His torso is freed when he gets his legs and like a toddler, he must learn to balance and smooth out his gait until he is tooling along instead of lurching. Through it all, Claire is there to gently guide him, praising and urging him to test his limits—if indeed, there are any.
You see, Julian is Claire’s latest—and last—creation. As she puts him through the paces with a combination of scientific rigor and breathtaking wonder, Claire questions if he is her best work. Is he the one who will breech what robotics experts call “the uncanny valley”—the idea that people are delighted by an artificial being that is somewhat humanlike, but are totally creeped out when it becomes too human.
If anyone is capable of transcending the uncanny valley, Julian is your, ahem, man. During the sessions, Julian reveals he’s a quick learner, moving from regular speech patterns and movements to getting—and making – jokes and becoming empathetic. He starts to question the whys of his existence and consciousness, which Claire believes “is to know that you know.”
In a series of scenes tautly directed by Tom Dugdale, Julian and Claire achieve a startling intimacy in a sterile setting. Julian presses Claire to talk about her life outside work—her husband Howard, a brilliant scientist whose mind is slipping, and the estrangement from their adult daughter.
These dreamy, spacy scenes are so expertly staged and exquisitely acted, you are sucked right into the exclusive relationship between Julian and Claire. Podulke and Kingsley achieve such a perfect mother-son bond it is almost an intrusion when the outside world creeps in. Kingsley is warmly maternal as Claire, but she also conveys the keen, cool analytical and testing mind of a scientist. Podulke beautifully calibrates Julian’s development process, moving from jerky and artificial to individuality and startling independence from his creator.
Closes August 3, 2014
Contemporary American Theatre Festival
92 West Campus Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $53 – $59
Details and Tickets
Julian appears startled by the news—“you mean, I have to leave the nest?” he seems to be asking Claire. But after the download, he is a changed man. He’s dynamic and full of plans—and schemes—some of which directly impact Claire’s life outside the lab.
Julian’s achieving his purpose forces Claire—and the audience—to ponder the consequences of replicating human consciousness. Is immortality something that is, like many technological advances, now available only to the super-rich? In time, as the technology improves, will it become widely available, more like a birthright?
Do the robots have other human rights? Or are they eternally tied to their creator and at the mercy of their algorhithms and therefore have no free will? The reversals and inversions explored in Uncanny Valley play tricks with your head—when Claire goes into clipped professional mode, in contrast, Julian becomes touchingly human.
But what does that mean? Is feeling and emotion what makes us human? Or is it the act of creation – to take an idea, a divine spark and make it real?
Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons . Directed by Tom Dugdale Featuring Barbara Kingsley and Alex Podulke . Set Design: Jesse Dreikosen . Costume Design: Therese Bruck . Lighting Design: John Ambrosone . Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop . Stage Manager: Cat Wallis . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.