Let The Machine Get It

Photo by Ian Douglas

Photo by Ian Douglas

I got mad at my iPhone. As I tried to lob out a simple text, the ever vigilant, often wrong word predictor kept changing “any milk?” to “Amy’s ill?” Who is Amy? A-N-Y. “Amy.” Stop it. After overriding the correction for the third time, I held the phone arm’s-length away and muttered, out loud, on a crowded Broadway sidewalk, “Don’t you know me better than that?

Match-Play pushes this slippage from machine to sentience even further. The four roommates dress their old school answering machine in a floppy blonde wig, sunglasses, and seersucker shorts. Alternately held or hung from wires, “Costello” lives with the two men and two women and periodically speaks to the audience in voiceovers. The show’s analog affections don’t stop there. An onstage boxy TV set serves as a window to a bucolic outside and, doll-like, Costello undergoes a loving onstage costume change. Rather than lamenting the increased sensitivities of the machines we live with, Match asks how relying upon them might make room to access the latent capacity of our perceiving minds. More specifically, I’m pretty sure I was asked to consider if I might actually welcome a robot takeover. And I was surprised by my answer.

The idea for this hybrid dance-play began when Rude Mechs, the ensemble-based theater collective from Austin, TX, accepted an invitation to create a theatrical “match” for choreographer Deborah Hay’s 2004 dance, The Match. The collaboration with Hay yields a kind of Richard Foreman meets MTV’s Real World (the group also drew upon Foreman’s texts in the process). We watch the characters move about their living space, reveal confessions of past loves, launch into sporadic dance, mew like cats, eat cupcakes, play drinking games, and ultimately, graze cow-like on all fours. Hay’s choreography challenges performers, according to the program notes, “to overcome the tyranny of having to create unique and original movement by [using] every cell in their bodies to perceive the uniqueness and originality of time and space.” Such heady proposals about the nature of consciousness are leavened with laugh-out-loud moments of hyperbolic self-performance and an interrupting papier mâché cow.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the cow head with an eerie blinking human eye. I learned that Alan Turing (artificial intelligence pioneer, a.k.a. Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) and Temple Grandin’s work on the humane treatment of animals inspired the making of the play. Turing and Grandin offer opposing ends of a spectrum of consciousness that Match-Play wants us to think about – one that does not hold the human at the center but includes animal and artificial forms of intelligence. The performers move alternately in artfully grandiose, animal-like, and mechanized ways, physicalizing a widened concern with the levels and layers of consciousness that includes animals, machines, and ourselves.

The show opens with the house lights up; Lana (Lana Lesley) arrives on-stage, sits, and proceeds to casually converse. Her mouth moves without making a sound and her hands labor to give shape to some idea. A ringing phone followed by the shrill beep of “the machine” intrudes. “Sound familiar?” Costello’s disembodied voice asks. We’re reminded of what we already let machines do for us. Taken together, Lana’s inaudible monologue and the unanswered call set up a tension between the impossibility of being heard or fully understood by another and a willed resistance to hear, to listen. Indeed, the whole play posits little questions and thought experiments about consciousness and perception, self-knowledge and otherness. Prior to seeing the show, this both intrigued and worried me. I saw Rude Mechs’ re-enactment of Dionysus in 69 four years ago at a performance studies symposium at Princeton University and so I came to Match reminded of bodies bounding across cubes within a heady echo chamber of academic voices.

Match delivers on its promise to raise philosophically rich questions without sacrificing theatrical pleasures. Barney (Barney O’Hanlon), the most histrionic of the four, narrates his life into a handheld tape recorder, filling tapes and then sending them off in a box to a random address. He enjoys the sound of his own voice but never rewinds. Instead, his memories are split from his body, archived in cardboard, and delivered to a stranger. Costello implores us to consider the impossibility of distinguishing the space between what’s happened and what we perceive and Barney later wishes “to be turned inside-out.” When pressed, he admits that it’s only “a momentary lust for something I couldn’t handle.” It seems we have to learn to live between the rock of our desire to transcend the limits of our consciousness and the hard place of what truly experiencing such a capacious awareness would entail. While elements of the spectacle are overly self-conscious – a TV screen reads “preset” and “blackout,” for example – the ensemble asks whether or not you’d really like what you found if you could fully go into your mind.

Two giant letters, an “O” and “X”, hang over stage right – at first I read it as an inverted evocation of “love,” representative of the wish for intimacy across the divides of these disparate dancing minds and bodies. But toward the end of the 75 minutes we learn that “OX” refers to a Chinese drug rumored to provide a brief moment each day when ordinary things fade, revealing a window onto “eternal truth.” Sometimes, we’re told, the person on OX would recognize this magical moment, but more often they lived in a constant state of “watchful tension.” The drug, in its promise to reveal something extraordinary about the daily act of living that L train delays and sleep deprivation inhibit, ultimately begets an agitated state of anxiety.       

Match gently invites the audience to engage in some of its perceptual play. About midway through the show Costello tells us that when another ball rolls across the stage we should try to feel how everyone else in the room is also a perceiving, perceptual being, just like us. I tried to shift out of passively watching in order to sense all sensations, widening my internal gaze to include those around me. But the moment passed too quickly and the need to keep up with the show won out over a hazy, nascent sense of other minds. Maybe, as Barney declaims, I also needed time to “get the hiccups.”

By the end, I was left with a related proposition that has now become a fantasy: what if our machines did know us better? What if they knew us so well they could momentarily be us? Would I opt out, let a robot run my life while I went elsewhere, only to return from my wormhole travels to find that only seconds had passed? Would I let the machine get it?

Yes, I think. In a heartbeat.

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