Friday, September 15, 2017

The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence—CoHo Productions—NW Portland

“The Infernal Machine”

This mind-bending play is written by Madeleine George and directed by Philip Cuomo (CoHo’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space, 2257 NW Raleigh St. (now only paid parking along some very busy streets), through September 30th.  For more information, go to their site at www.cohoproductions.org or call 503-220-2646.

The above title is a bit of an enigma, like the play, and can refer to both human and artificial intelligence, as well as to Time, and even Life, itself.  “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” as the Bard has said.  The play slips in and out of our universal clockwork, like a thief in the night,” giving no rhyme or reason for its existence (or for ours) and may even skip-jump dimensions as well suggesting, maybe, it all exists together.  After that introduction, if you think a reviewer could make sense on paper, what George has so smoothly done when gracing the stage with this material, you are mistaken.

What I can provide, though, is a bit of a thumb-nail sketch/outline of the events.  There is at least three separate time-periods that are visited during the two-hour course of the story, all of which have a “Watson” (Eric Martin Reid) as connecting tissue.  One Watson, in modern times, is an A/I (Artificial Intelligence), within the computer of Eliza (Sarah Ellis Smith), the designer, and has become a sort of lifeline to sanity.  She is estranged from her bombastic, politician husband, Merrick (Gavin Hoffman), who has become a stalker of her private life, via a somewhat inept, techno-expert, Watson (Reid), who does make a connection with her but not in the way Merrick anticipated…which morphs into another level of the story.

We also slip back in time to another “Waston,” this one having to do with the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, in which he was his assistant.  He is a forgotten footnote in history, only valuable as a recorder of who Bell was, and the events leading up to the phone invention, as he finds out when being grilled by an interviewer, Eliza (Smith).  And one more “Watson,” in literary time, makes an appearance, that of the Doctor and supposed chronicler of the cases of Sherlock Holmes, who also discovers an eccentric inventor, Merrick (Hoffman), who is attempting some rather unorthodox experiments in which his wife, Eliza (Smith), would be involved.  Can’t give any more away of the story without exposing plot elements that should be discovered by the viewer.

Do all these stories connect?  Yes, actually they do, and explore something of the human condition, as well as our own artificial and imaginary worlds.  When we, as Creators, attempt to, ourselves, create a world we can control, do we not also let loose a Creation that may someday have a mind of its own and might surpass the intentions of its Creator, and become its own Creator?  Clearly, one must pause, at some point, to question our Purpose here on this tiny rock, within a vast universe of pebbles…only my take-away from it.  Yours, I’m sure, could be something quite different, and that’s as it should be with Art (in the “eye of the beholder”).

The cast is amazing, being able to jump time and space barriers with some quick costume changes and subtle, but effective, lighting (designer, Peter Ksander).  All three of the actors slip seemingly easily from one character to another and yet maintain a reality within that keeps the audience connected to them, and the story, as well.  Cuomo has managed to create an organic reality onstage that keeps ideas and plots connected, although seemingly disjointed in time and space.

Only one minor note on the script, I believe that play could have ended one scene earlier, as the finale to that scene was more powerful, in my opinion.  A couple audience members I talked to agreed.  But it’s a powerful, thought-provoking and chilling production and I recommend it.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.