Encore Michigan

‘Watson’ at Open Book begs many questions about our relationship with tech

Review September 15, 2019 David Kiley

TRENTON, Mich.–Our relationship with technology can be confounding, fantastic, a lifeline, and drive you crazy. And all those emotions can happen in the space of a day or a week.

Think of it. How do we react when the WiFi is slow or not available? When AT&T makes it brutal to switch to another carrier? When some bastard botster infects your website? When your email gets hacked? When a gang of pathetic bullies mounts a cyber posse on social media from the comfort of their own couches while you sit in the presumed safe-space of your own home. Looking for love? Go to Tinder. Filing your taxes? TurboTax. Need a divorce? LegalZoom. Want to break up with a lover without the mess? Text. Play music or want the baseball scores? Ask Alexa or Siri. Want to play all your favorite music without changing the station? Pandora.

It is this intertwined dependence on technology that presumably led playwright Madeleine George to write a clever story called The (Curious Case of) The Watson Intelligence, which is now running at Open Book Theatre through October 12.

The play concerns three time-skipped stories around a man named Watson, all played by Joe Zarrow: Dr. Watson, sidekick to Sherlock Holmes; Thomas Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell; Watson, a retail/housecall tech specialist (think GeekSquad).

So, the the play’s three strands are spread across three centuries. Things begin in the current one when Eliza (Annabelle Young) shares a quiet evening at home with her companion (Mr. Zarrow too) who we come to find is a robot that she created, and who is “learning” how to respond to her and life itself through constant inputs from her. He trades supportive talk with Eliza as she complains about, among other things, her ex-husband Frank Merrick (Patrick Loos) who won’t stop texting her and leaving voicemails.

Mr. Zarrow does an excellent job of changing characters, especially handling the vital nuance and connectivity between two of his characters–the helpful, earnest robot who is programmed to go further and further in comforting and helping Eliza; and Watson the “tech-guy” who goes from handling Merrick’s IT issues to being hired by him to spy on Eliza. That arrangement results in he and Eliza falling for one another during the surveillance.

Zarrow’s humanity in his role as artificial-intelligence guy is slightly eerie as we start to realize that Eliza may really be trying to program him to be her perfect man. Real human Tech-Guy Watson appeals to her despite his low-level rung on the ambition ladder compared with hers as an AI designer precisely because it makes him happy to simply make her happy.

Eliza’s ex Merrick is fiercely jealous and a small-government conservative who is running to be his city’s elected auditor. Mr. Loos, an always reliably terrific actor, animates Merrick with all the colors of frustration with the world even as he is succeeding in it.

Now, follow these people back to 19th century, and Dr. Watson, the famous helper of Sherlock Holmes, receives a visit from another Eliza. (The three actors portray characters of the same names in all the various plot threads). Eliza of the 1800s is concerned about some small punctures on her arm, and the odd behavior of her husband, an industrialist and “mechanical visionary” (another man named Merrick played by Loos) who is given to sudden rage and control-freak outbursts just like the 21st century Merrick.

If the time-shifting seems like a bit of a mishegoss, it is moreso when one tries to describe it than when delivered by this excellent cast, directed by Krista Schafer Ewbank. Lighting design by Harley Miah is key to changing centuries back and forth. Bradley Byrne’s set is very useful for making the time changes without having to move the furniture. Ms. Schafer’s sound design is at times very amusing. Right after her “turn your cellphones off” speech before curtain, the first thing we hear as the play starts is a cellphone ring.

There is a third strand of the play, which involves Thomas Watson’s day in the sun with the inventor of the telephone. He is being interviewed 50 yesars later, and there is much chatter about how history got wrong the exact words Bell said to Watson upon the confirmation that telephony worked. This seems a not–to-subtle flick at how technology, and those re-telling the story, can get things wrong. Ever have a text mis-interpreted? A website hat was designed to help, but winds up blowing the blood-pressure meter? Tech gets it wrong as often as it gets it right.

Ms. Young’s Eliza embodies the simultaneous fear and want of what technology can bring. She wants love, but is wary of both her Watson creation and the Watson tech-guy, even though both seem to want to do nothing else but please her and look after her…but not really challenge her.

This is a very talky play, and it is at its best when the characters are tapping into how they really feel. Ms. George’s construct, though, is a drumbeat of irony and symbolism about the evolving dependence we have on technology to make us happy, fulfilled and wanted. We feel better when more people share or like our Facebook and Twitter posts. We read into what people really mean by which Emojis they text or post to our content. “Why are you sending me green hearts instead of red ones?!” Seriously?

We feel more validated when more people like and share out content. More of us fall asleep with our smartphones and connectivity in our hands or on our bedside than not. We hang out with our friends in Instagram rather than at an actual pizza parlor. People can literally be bullied to death on social media. And people 3,000 miles away can meet and court in cyber-space before an actual meeting takes place. Lovers separated by distance can leave their Skype running to give the illusion they are in the same room even if they aren’t staring into the camera.

Technology is literally our friend…except when it’s not. The Watson Intelligence doesn’t hit every aspect of our relationship with tech on the nose with a hammer. But it does makes us think about all of it. And that is always a good thing when we use our actual intelligence before we turn to the artificial kind.

Week of 11/18/2019

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