Your Empathy Will Be Tested: A New Stage Adaptation Of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Adapting Dick's seminal novel is guaranteed to be a difficult process, and would have been even if Ridley Scott's Blade Runner weren't already a 30-year-old SF classic. Untitled Theater Company #61 took on the ambitious challenge. And mostly, it worked.

The novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a paranoid meditation on personal identity and the human capacity for empathy. It follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts down six Nexus-6 model androids in a post-war, apocalyptic future which is loaded down with "kipple", the materialistic detritus of a long-past consumer culture, and in which nearly all animal species are dead and nearly all human beings have emigrated off-planet. The remainder ease their anguish with mood-organs - machines that permit them to control their own feelings - and try to keep the spark of humanity alive through something called "Mercerism," in which humans partake of a kind of mass communion with a man who is climbing up a hill while people are throwing rocks at him. It's central to the idea of empathy, which humans possess and androids do not, and is the motivating factor behind why so many humans in this world are desperate for the opportunity to care for the last remaining animals.

Dick was a peculiar stylist, often switching plots in the middle of his story, picking up and dropping themes as he felt the urge, or introducing key elements at the last possible second, and his approach to writing novels doesn't seem like it would translate very well to the stage. In the Untitled Theater Company's production, adapted and directed by Edward Einhorn, some small changes are made from this original premise (there are only three androids to hunt down in this story), and some parts of the plot are pared away (including an android-run fake police station that apparently existed for no purpose except to make bounty hunters wonder if they really might be androids), but the basic elements-androids that look like humans, the Voight-Kampf Test, Mercerism, empathy-are preserved.

The novel was written in 1968 and, in typical Dickian style, does not come saturated with visual aesthetic. Set designer Neil Wilkinson very wisely departed from the iconic Blade Runner aesthetic, instead choosing to focus on the idea of "kipple"-the set is covered in all manner of junk (up to and including the kitchen sink), but it's all junk from the 80s, making the whole thing look like a retro-future apocalypse. The integrated multimedia (designed by Jared Mezzochi), with screens onto which are projected choppily-edited and badly-greenscreened video, heightened the effect, giving the piece a kind of Max Headroom feel, drawing up the idea of a world literally used to death by consumerism. The overall effect is one that bears no resemblance to Blade Runner—and thankfully; though the Blade Runner aesthetic is iconic, it's by no means prescriptive. The set is nonetheless rich, enigmatic, eerie and alienating, evoking both the past in which the novel was written, and the future that it describes (the superlative choice, I think, is Rick Deckard (Alex Emmanuel)'s electric cigarette, which has a glowing blue tip when he takes it out of his pocket).

The costumes leaned a little back towards the Blade Runner aesthetic; though the designer (Carla Grant) denied it, Rachel Rosen (Yvonne Roen) definitely looked like she had Sean Young hair, and it was impossible to look at Roy Baty (Christian Pederson) and not see Rutger Hauer. Still, the attention to detail is worth noting, in particular the complex carry-all harness that Deckard wears to carry both his gun and his Voight-Kampf testing paraphernalia.

The piece is underscored by a long cello score, the composition of which (by Henry Akona) was extremely interesting, and Michael Midlarksi, who performed it the night I saw it, is plainly a talented performer. If only the cello weren't so relentless. Often it was a distraction, sometimes oppressive, occasionally hilarious: A revelation occurs onstage! Someone here is an android! (cellooo). Bryant looks at Deckard! (cellloooooo!) He looks at Phillipa Ryan! (CELLOOOOOOO!) It's possible that this comedy was intentional, but there were certainly no other signs that Einhorn thought to parody melodramatic 1930s detective movies.

The acting was decent-Yvonne Roen shifts back and forth from the loosely-moraled Pris to the uptight Rachel Rosen (both identical androids) with great facility; Uma Incrocci's Iran is appropriately authentic; Moira Stone as Luna Luft had an excellent singing voice. Alex Emmanuel, as Rick Deckard, strikes a nice balance between the gruff, hard-bitten detective and the pained man who feels that his humanity is slipping away. The only sour note was Alyssa Simon as competing bounty hunter Phillippa Ryan; she was using this 1930s Humphery Bogart style that might have been fine in and of itself, but seemed out of place with the rest of the play's aesthetic. It's hard to say that there were any stand out performances though, and it's not really fair to blame the actors for this. The problem is that the material they were working with gave them so little to do.

The production's main flaws come from the adaptation itself. It is absolutely a challenge to bring Dick's unique style to the stage, though it's not even entirely necessary. Einhorn, for instance, has jettisoned most of Dick's paranoia-the requirement to prove one's identity and Deckard's existential anxiety when he starts to think that he was never a bounty hunter at all, for instance. There's no requirement to keep that in the adaptation, despite how prominent a theme it is in Dick's oeuvre, and it's certainly incumbent on any piece of theater to be able to stand independently of its source material, but ditching one part of the story is only acceptable if what remains can hold up on its own.

Regretfully, I'm not sure it can. That Einhorn raises questions in his script is certainly true, but the questions themselves are often pedantic. Roy Baty, who's taken Deckard's wife Iran hostage, shouts at her: "You humans talk about empathy, but who created wars and slavery?" Which, yes, this is technically a valid point, but raising it only serves to draw attention to what might have been more interesting as a quiet irony. The most daring of the ideas-that the idea that "all life is sacred" is actually an over-compensation for a lack of empathy-is introduced at the very last minute and remains tragically under-explored. There's ultimately little in the way of moral ambiguity, as well, and the idea that we're left with, Iran's assertion that, "If he loves it, then it's real," seems somehow insufficient to the scope of Dick's complex philosophy regarding love and humanity.

There are times, moreover, that the lines just don't make any sense, and suggest a need for further and extensive revisions. For instance, after Roy Baty informs Deckard that he corrupted Deckard's fellow Bounty Hunter Philippa Ryan by offering her a lot of money, Deckard immediately exclaims, "But they brought her on because she couldn't be corrupted by sex!" The entire treatment of sex seemed to only confuse the question of Deckard's gradually decaying empathy, alternating as it did between the suggestion that without being empathic towards androids, Deckard was himself becoming an android, and the noir-ish trope that Deckard's losing his edge as a bounty hunter because he can't help but fall for "dames".

What seems to have happened is that Einhorn has re-written a number of scenes into the play, and put them in an order that is meant to be illustrative of a theme, but without re-writing the underpinnings of the characters or the dramatic structure-relying instead on Dick's characterization and sense of drama. The problem with this is that Dick often didn't bother with those things, and the play reflects it. It too often presents a jumble of themes, that relies on exposition in place of character, and explication in place of dramatic action.

Trying to adapt the work was bold in the first place, and it is tempting to award extra point for audacity – but impossible if they come at the expense of craft.

All that said, if the purpose of the play was simply to provoke empathy, based on the number of audience members who felt bad for the poor live turtle that was brought out at the very end, I suppose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has to be considered a success.

Untitled Theater Company 61's adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is currently playing at the 3 Legged Dog Art and Technology center, 80 Greenwich St., New York, NY.

Chris Braak is a writer of little note but many opinions. You can find more of them at Threat Quality Press.

(photo by Arthur Cornelius, of Yvonne Roen and Alex Emmanuel)