Philip K. Dick‘s novels have led to several visually stunning, iconic films. It is difficult to imagine how his sprawling stories could be adapted to the limits of a small theatre but the Sacred Fools have pulled it off with a wondrous staging of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Those of us who know Dick only through film need to take Edward Einhorn’s adaptation on faith. It was a prescient work. After a dozen years of forced-marching to dystopia, we have arrived in Dick’s bleak vision for the world. The hardware androids have a little ways to go yet but the software versions are there and getting better. His predictions about mass media have been met and depressingly exceeded.
The production very smartly uses video and a multilevel set to weave threads of freedom, faith, and the disappearing line between man and machine. Robots and humans test one another to see which is which and to determine which should live. All the while hidden powers and voices consolidate power and control ever scarcer resources on a post-nuclear earth. At the sheep level, Androids want to be equal to humans, exhausted humans are not sure whether it matters any longer.
Technology and theatre don’t always mix well with the flash often becoming an end unto itself. Here the artistic and technical crews complement one another seamlessly in serving the story. The carcasses of discarded computers, each once the top of the technological heap, lie in the public and playing spaces. Video screens and dark, static-filled projections convincingly allow the characters to be poke, prod, and investigate one another and to quickly snap the audience’s attention from one location to the next with a simple turn of the head. The excellent choreography of actors, stagehands, and crew sustains the needed illusions through split-second timing. Even the props glow, chirp, and beep exactly on cue. All of this is necessary. This could not be a radio play. Coherent visuals, sound, and design language – typical of Theatre Movement Bazaar, City Garage, and the late, lamented Collective – make or break works like this and could not have been easy. It would be interesting to know how much of this had been worked out in the 2010 New York premiere.
Director Jaime Robledo marshals a strong cast and crew with Kimberly Atkinson shining as Rachael/Pris, the robot your mother warned you about. Eric Curtis Johnson is nicely hang-dog as bounty hunter Deckard. One wonders how it may have played if he switched roles with Rafael Goldstein‘s revolutionary Roy Baty. Henry Akona‘s haunting score, heard through recordings, offer instrumentals that frame the story. The songs in the Pierrot Lunaire style sung by the appropriately named Luna Luft (Emily Kosloski) are a matter of taste but should be popular with the young people. Singling out the crew is unfortunately difficult. Leaving any of them out would be unkind, repeating the list from the website would be lazy. Seeing the play is the best acknowledgment of their efforts.
The twists and turns require the audience to prepare and stay focussed. This was also the case in Robledo’s recent Sherlock Holmes outing especially with reference to the power of suggestion and memory but “Androids” offers far more to assemble and digest on the drive home and beyond. Familiarity with the novel is of course the best option. Failing that, assimilating a synopsis will be time well spent. It all goes well beyond the recursive ‘guess the robot’ game and into the heart of memory, empathy, and what we think sets humans apart from other life and mechanistic approximations of life. The one-act clocks in at a crisp ninety minutes and leaves us wanting more. A longer version would better flesh out the ideas but intermission would break the magic. The ideas are, in turn, no longer the realm of fantasy. The Tonegawa group at MIT has successfully implanted false memories in mice by manipulating the animals’ hippocampi. Their abstract chillingly concludes, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviorally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” It will not be long before the ethical issues raised by Dick will have to be confronted for larger life forms.