Arts & Theater

Theater review: ‘Uncanny Valley’ explores what makes us human

Jessica Powell and Michael Patrick Wiles appear in “Uncanny Valley” at Capital Stage.
Jessica Powell and Michael Patrick Wiles appear in “Uncanny Valley” at Capital Stage.

The questions about what makes us human take many forms, some specifically scientific, others more elusively aesthetic and nuanced. Those questions form the central dynamic of Thomas Gibbons’ often-fascinating two-person play “Uncanny Valley” now at Capital Stage.

Claire (Jessica Powell), a 70-year-old neuroscientist, and her creation, Julian (Michael Patrick Wiles), a 34-year-old artificial human, inhabit a not-too-distant future. Although Gibbons creatively explores the logical endgame of the robotics we’ve often seen in science fiction, the play winds down prematurely while it unevenly grasps at more than its lean 90 minutes can hold.

The “uncanny valley” theory was first proposed in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who theorized that when robots contain features that look and move nearly like natural beings, they trigger a more negative response from people than nonhuman-looking robots do. In the course of the play Julian develops from little more than a barely animated mechanical torso into a spirited middle-aged industrialist. Wiles’ brilliant performance anchors the play with a remarkable transformation that maintains a slight other-worldliness even as he becomes a seemingly complete human being.

The play’s most fascinating conceit concerns the revelation that Julian has not been conceived as a generic robot but a very specific one. The consciousness downloaded into Julian comes from the mind and memories of a wealthy industrialist who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Julian also carries the original Julian’s DNA and looks as the industrialist did when he was 34.

The “uncanny valley” conundrum is having a watershed moment, as dramas about humanlike robotics abound. Earlier this year B Street’s “The Watson Intelligence” proceeded from a vaguely similar starting point, and there’s even another play concerning robotics called “The Uncanny Valley.” In film we’ve seen Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”

Ridley Scott’s godfather of the genre, “Blade Runner” (1982), was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” suggests they do not because they don’t really sleep. They do reminisce, though, or at least indulge in likely idealized recreations of the past. Then again, don’t we all?

While science remains consumed with the ideas of artificial intelligence, it’s the specter of artificial emotion that truly fascinates. What makes us human isn’t the ability to solve a quadratic equation, it’s the impulse to love our pet cat.

In director Jonathan Williams’ crisp production, the scientist Claire feels the more programmed as Gibbons’ script moves her through a preset range of emotional situations, holding her at a remote arm’s length as Wiles inhabits the combative Julian, making him the more real, vital presence.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Uncanny Valley

  • What: National New Play Network rolling world premiere of a play by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Jonathan Williams
  • Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through July 19.
  • Cost: $24-$38
  • Information: (916) 995-5464; capstage.org
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