NextFest 2016: Silence & the Machine

Silence & the Machine

By Liam Salmon
Directed by Desirée Leverenz
Featuring: Erin Orris, Franco Correa, and Kiana Woo
Stage Manager: Natasha Brocks
Set/Costume Designer: Elise Jason
Sound Designer: Connor Suart

Remaining performances: June 9 @ 6:00 p.m.; June 12 at 6:30 p.m.

I have to admit I almost didn’t see Silence & the Machine at NextFest 2016. With a description like ‘A robot. A pregnancy. A betrayal’ found in the NextFest program, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m sure glad my friend took me to it. Silence & the Machine is a well-developed, thought-provoking play exploring the relationship between humans and robots.

In Silence & the Machine, we meet Robert (played by Franco Correa), a scientist whose investors have given their money to assist his development of a robot that will pass a Turing test by being identical to a human female in every way. Repeat: every way.

As the business manager of the research company (played by Kiana Woo), pushes Robert for more progress and moving on to phase two, which the one remaining investor – Playboy – is very eager to get to. When Robert breaks his promise to Anya, the robot (Erin Orris), that he’ll never make her do things she doesn’t want to, Anya wonders if the truer way to pass the Turing test is to purposefully fail it – understanding what it takes to be considered human and the implications of passing the Turing test, and deciding to act in a way that contradicts what her creators want. Silence & the Machine wastes no time in escalating to explore some pretty creepy scenarios where what Anya wants is different than what Robert and the investors want, and even though she was designed to have desires and free will, her ability to actually have these things is restricted.

I hate to make yet another comparison to the movie Ex Machina (as I did with Wish), but Silence & the Machine raises questions about artificial intelligence similar to the movie – specifically, how far is too far? Through a series of Anya’s memories, we see the relationship between Robert and Anya rapidly progress from her willingness to fulfill Robert’s simple requests to scenarios where Robert’s requests are really more formalities before he does whatever he wants with her body and mind. We want to progress robots to the point where they pass the Turing test, however, even if they can pass as humans, conversations around artificial intelligence typically don’t involve humans treating artificial intelligence as humans. Silence & the Machine asks to what point and why do we want artificial intelligence to progress?

All three actors in Silence & the Machine  (Erin Orris, Franco Correa, and Kiana Woo) were excellent – quickly establishing and fully committing to their characters. The only aspect of the performance I was a little unsure about how it was intended to read was the anxiety that permeats the characters and manifests in their actions and ways of speaking – so much so that I left the play feeling very anxious, but without fully understanding what the characters themselves were anxious about. There are several time jumps in the play as well and without any way of marking when in time a particular moment was happening I felt a little lost, which contributed to the sense of anxiety I felt. This certainly could have been on purpose, since one of the recurring verbal motifs was about knowing the difference between dreams and memories and these time jumps without context would play into that.  However, without understanding the source of the anxiety the characters were projecting, this technique of producing anxiety didn’t seem to be purposeful.

Remaining shows of Silence & the Machine are June 9 at 6:00 p.m. and June 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Boulevard). Tickets are $10 per show, $18 for a day pass or $40 for a festival pass and can be bought online, by phone (780.453.2440), or in-person at the Roxy on Gateway 30 minutes before the performance.

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