“Mr. Watson – Come Here – I want to see you.”
– Alexander Graham Bell, as written in his personal journal, 10 March 1876
I have very little patience for technophobes who ramble on and on about how each new digital advancement is putting us less in touch with “our real selves”. These folks often delude themselves into thinking our species once existed in a state of ultimate tranquility when we all lived like the Amish (who aren’t the Luddites people think them to be). They also tend to hypocritically rely on their smartphones and tablets for a great many of their daily activities and errands. Their failure to remain on the cutting edge of a changing world has them, paradoxically, believing that they have some greater level of insight into the human experience.
And yet, there’s something to be said for making a machine that’s too good at its job. The cotton gin was mechanical marvel that helped put an end to hundreds of years Black American slavery, but no one feels as “liberated” by the thought of thousands of automated arms replacing unionized factory workers. The electronic calculator allows a wealth of mathematical knowledge to fit in your pocket, but still a large group of friends dining together will be confounded on how to split the bill. And yes, social media keeps us in daily contact with fellow kindergarten alumni and annoying co-workers, but it hasn’t improved our ability to distinguish a political candidate’s actual position from something written and shared from a racist blog post.
No wonder some of our most innovative minds believe the rise of artificial intelligence may spell our doom.
It’s this intersection between technological advancement and human interaction that occupied the mind of playwright Madeleine George when she conceived The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a play about relatively smart human beings who can’t quite get the hang of this whole human interaction thing. And as it stands, it’s a play without much of a point.
Our story takes place at three points in time. In the modern day, scientist and start-up entrepreneur Eliza wants her latest software – based on IBM’s Watson AI – to be the constant companion everyone needs in their life. As her paranoid ex-husband kicks off his political campaign, he hires tech repairman Josh Watson to keep an eye on her. The assignment soon takes a turn that none of them saw coming.
In Victorian England, Dr. John Watson greets a woman named Eliza who seeks the aid of Watson’s partner, Inspector Sherlock Holmes. Though Holmes is away, Watson takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of this intriguing woman and the mysterious scars on her hands. It leads the good doctor to the woman’s industrious husband, a man with a knack for machinery, but a cold heart for the duties of marriage.
In the mid-20th century, Thomas A. Watson is about to be interviewed about his famous phone call with inventor Alexander Graham Bell. According to Bell, the famous quote above has been altered from the less intimate “Watson, I want you.” But interviewer Eliza suggests that they stick to the version recorded by history. After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to think that this technological wonder was used to bring these men together, would we?
It’s worth noting that although this play supports the urban legend that Bell told Watson “I want you” – leading to no end of suggestive speculation – the reason both history and Graham’s personal diary (which I’ve linked to above) record the opposite. Any sense of intimacy the two may have had beyond their professional relationship is pure speculation. For George to treat it as incontrovertible fact is just one of the text’s problems.
The idea at the root of the story is one that has intrigued dramatists for centuries: using some advanced piece of tech in place of genuine relationships with actual human beings. But George falls victim to very missteps of which she tries to forewarn. She becomes she fascinated with what the characters represent that she spends very little time giving them any further dimensions: every version of Watson is underappreciated for a genius we’re only told about; every version of Merrick is a cartoonishly bad husband; and every version of Eliza is simply intent to put a distance between herself and Watson.
Occasionally, this will lead to some rather pointed lines – such as when Eliza tells Josh Watson that he’s both “too perfect” and “too imperfect,” but none of the characters truly take shape. That’s fine when dealing with the actual Watson AI, but the people meant to be flesh and blood require a bit more definition.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the play succeeds more from a technical standpoint. In the multiple iterations of Eliza, actress Sarah Mitchell succeeds in making her performance(s) more empathetic than the text would have her. Brady Woolery’s Watsons are serviceable, if indistinct. The notable exception being the Watson AI, which nerdy-looking Woolery performs with his best Siri impression. Not as well served are the over-the-top versions of Merrick, played by actor Mick Mize. Having never seen Mize perform before, I can only assume that he was caught in a corner but the text.
Both the cast and the Ashby Stage are served well by director Nancy Carlin. Under her guidance, the stage seamlessly goes back and forth Victorian mystery to contemporary rom-com. Set designer Nina Ball has built some of my favorite sets this year, including her wonderfully minimalist set for Shotgun’s production of Nora. Her set for Watson is a great mash-up of Victorian architecture and timeless ingenuity, with set additions – beds, drawers – sliding gracefully in and out of the larger pieces.
By now, I’ve spoken ad nauseum about my disdain for full blackout transitions. Thankfully, Ball, lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer, and sound designer Cliff Caruthers create gorgeous light- and soundscapes that feature the upstage wall illuminating like a classic computer as ethereal music plays over various actors reading Graham Bell’s famous call to Watson. Valera Coble’s costumes are wonderfully detailed without being distracting, Mia Baxter’s recreation of Victorian-era props and the Bell’s telephone prototype are eye-catching.
Perhaps it isn’t the legendary “Singularity” we as a species should fear, nor the idea that our mechanical creations will one day overthrow us. But we should always be concerned with how we interact with one another. Madeleine George clearly has a concern about us losing that ability, but she never imbues her human characters with enough life for us to cling to them for the play’s running time.
Thankfully, the actors and creative folks at Shotgun do their best to accommodate for the humanity the text lacks. Perhaps that’s the lesson right there: a script, like any other tool, is only as powerful as the person using it.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is scheduled to run until the 3rd of September at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.