What is it to be human? Where does the humanity reside that gives each of us the qualities of being a person? If you could directly manipulate every attribute of your closest friend, would you? How far would you go to mold them to your precise preferences? These questions form the basis of Sarah Saltwick’s brilliant new play, A Perfect Robot, now enjoying its world premiere production by Vortex Repertory Theatre in Austin.
Diego (Jesus I. Valles), a scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, has been tasked with creating a device that takes the digital personal assistant to a new standard. He answers that call and much more by creating Mollybot (Amelia Turner), a fully-functional life companion. Daisy (Andreá Smith) has arrived to evaluate his work, but finds that Diego has inexplicably disappeared. In vanishing, he password-protected Mollybot’s most human-like functionalities behind a firewall, leaving behind little more than a biped smartphone in the care of his lab assistant George (Trey Deason). The pair must work together to penetrate the digital security that veils her revolutionary potential.
In the challenging role of Mollybot, Ms. Turner shows exquisite talent as actor and mime with every word and movement. Even her blinking displays Diego’s deliberate programming. With choreography by Sandie Donzica, the actor simulates a machine with near perfection; any lack of realism is the machine’s limitations in simulating a human rather than the reverse. So complete is the illusion that we find it amusing when she successfully mimics the vagaries of inane human social scripts, such as answering simply, “fine” when someone asks how she is.
Her constant onstage companion is a software subroutine based on the work of Dr. Alan Turing (Joey Hood in a powerful and sensitive performance), the renowned yet tragically persecuted Father of Artificial Intelligence and WWII code-breaking war hero. His “Turing Test,” well known by programmers, evaluates a machine’s ability to elicit interpersonal responses from humans. Unseen by others, he internally counsels Mollybot on the vagaries of human social interactions. So important is the memory of Dr. Turing that the story is bookended between his soliloquies.
If Turing is the story’s hidden hero, its passionate heart is Maddy (Sarah Danko), the biologist who may hold the key to revealing Mollybot’s technological breakthroughs. It is through Ms. Danko’s magnificent emotional range that we experience the soul of this poignant narrative.
Director Rudy Ramirez assembled a wonderfully creative team, including Patrick Anthony (lighting), David DeMaris (sound), Briana Susan Smith (props), Ann Marie Gordon (scenery), Eliot Gray Fisher (video projection), Pam Fletcher Friday (Costumes), and the aforementioned Sandie Donzica (robot movement coach). Sound, lighting, and video play their own vital role in telling the story, and are executed flawlessly.
The Vortex is an Austin community comprised of dozens of talented graphic artists, performers, sculptors, and other creative spirits. It is a locale teeming with unrestrained, avant-garde vision. Located on Manor Road just east of I-35, it is an ideal gathering spot, featuring Patrizi’s mobile kitchen, cocktails from the Butterfly Bar, al fresco seating with a fire pit, or on the spacious deck. Go early for the evening meal and drinks, and go with friends. Food and beverages from Patrizi’s and Butterfly Bar are welcome inside the theater and are available at intermission.
Has Diego constructed the perfect companion? Can it substitute even for inter-human companionship? Does it pass the Turing Test? Maybe yes. After the curtain call, when the show is over, you’ll miss her.