Are robots better at being humane than humans are? A new science fiction play in New York City wants to know — and it will kill loads of people, in order to find out.
In "Motherboard," the year is 2465, twenty years after a violent uprising of sentient machines slaughtered two-thirds of the global population. Humanity struggles to survive, with the despised military government more worried about why the machines chose to deactivate than building a new world from nuclear-irradiated ashes. Enter C-12, the finest specimen of a preserved robot the forces have found. The play opens with her dissection.
Presented by the AntiMatter Collective at The Secret Theatre (continuing the forum's tradition of spearheading science fiction in theater) "Motherboard" has the distinction of being the most violent stage production I've ever seen. "Gore/makeup" designer Stephanie Cox-Williams' effects are as immersive as the characters and action, and playwright Adam Scott Mazer is also billed as fight choreographer. Watch as android skin is peeled back to reveal circuitry; watch out for sudden bloodsplatters. The ring of gunshots and the smell of smoke from blanks fills the air.
From the start, "Motherboard" is an intensely physical play. It begins with the examination of the intact android model, a "nurtureon" that had once been deployed for childcare. This particular machine, C-12, was found amidst the ruins of the family she served and murdered. A deactivated robot in a futuristic play is like Chekhov's rule of the gun: we know she will go off eventually. It happens with nail-biting, horror-movie flair.
C-12 awakens to a world still in the throes of a post-apocalypse; many of the trappings will feel familiar to science fiction aficionados. Computer technology, having reached a Singularity-level crisis, is now largely nonfunctional and outlawed. A battle-hardened, authoritarian government will do anything necessary to further the species' survival, even if it means dealing harshly with individual lives.
Those left on the surface scavenge amid scanty resources and radiation, and the dregs of humanity seem mired in a brutal, almost sub-human culture of sexual powerplays, drugs and violence. They are so diverged from the war-heroes in charge that their very language has changed — they speak in descriptive command words that communicate wants and desires without subtlety, more robotic than the robot's somewhat more eloquent speech.
As C-12, Rebecca Hirota is astonishingly good, moving the action along and managing to render the machinated menace into a sympathetic antiheroine. Lovely to look at, she packs a pint-sized Buffy/River Tam badass punch. I am also fully convinced that she is an android, to the credit of director Will Fulton. The evocative set is crammed with old tech, some of which comes to life, and clever use of strung-up mason jars for lighting makes for a stage that transitions well as the robot goes on the lam.
C-12 is the most interesting and unpredictable creation in "Motherboard," the idea of a rogue "nannybot" chill-inducing in its implications, but the story has other strange folks for her to encounter. Like a robo-Dorothy, she sets out across an unforgiving alien land, given the directive that has guided adventure narratives since the dawn of time: there's no place like home. No matter that the house she seeks is now a ruined wasteland and the family is long dead at her own hand, in what one character remarks "must have been a domestic drama of the highest caliber."
A series of intriguing stylized animations by Jonathan Shaw and Emily Friend Roberts plays between some of the action on stage, suggesting the creeping decay of the human-robot servile relationship, while the high-pitched wail of a baby often splits the air. The narrative is as concerned with human birth as much as it is with technological rebirth, exemplified by a character named after the Grecian goddess of the Underworld, Penelope (Elizabeth Bays), the wizard behind the curtain in "Neo-Penelopon," here the blackmarket trading center.
Dressed like a deranged Alice in Wonderland and half a Queen of Hearts, Bays gives a manic, convincing go at a uniquely bizarre authority figure. By the time we reach her in "Motherboard," our sense of reality is so altered that we can accept her rule in an upside-down world. I'll leave it to the audience to experience Penelope and her gruff, Hades-like protector Ned (Andrew Krug), described in future-speak as "wire-spun like a kinda ghost cat."
On her journey, C-12 encounters the fall-out of society in the form of Maggot (Bryce Henry, wonderfully grotesque) and Sweetums (Alison Laplantey, excellently shrill), the former nearly reverted to half-animal, the latter his BDSM-dressed keeper. The characters can grate, especially with their stylized mode of speech, which can take a while to parse; but the visceral, purposeful dislike they evoke is effective, and the pair end up with the most wrenchingly human moment of the play. They're all being hunted by vengeful war-hero Abraham (Casey Robinson), who hates C-12 with a tenacity part Ahab, part Javert, and part Captain Hook.
Robinson and his military crew do what they can with the side-plot, including Penny Flick as his tough Starbuck of a wife and James Rutherford as a creepy robot-loving doctor, but their stories are underdeveloped in favor of C12's. The other characters seem to exist at times merely to see what the robot will do with them, and some of the violence is excessive enough to border on camp.
To its credit, "Motherboard" is never boring, and provokes an edge-of-the-seat tension that holds up for hours. Fans of horror and suspense will love the action, while the play also asks speculative questions about the rightful use of technology alongside those of love, family, and politics. All are prescient topics, and the reveal of why the robots deactivated and why they attacked in the first place is satisfying and disturbing. Do mind the blood and plasma.
Motherboard, presented by AntiMatter Collective at The Secret Theatre (44 02 23rd Street, Long Island City, Queens) through October 14; Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ($18) may be purchased online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.