Future Written by the Victors


Show #76: Foresight, Easily Distracted Theatre, July 11.

Angelina Longueras, Luisa Frasconi, GreyWolf and Sarah Shoshana David in Foresight. Photo by John Donley

By Sam Hurwitt

The promises and dangers of mechanized life forms have been contemplated and explored in science fiction for at least a century, and the question of at what point artificial intelligence can be thought of as alive has been bounced around as long as there have been computers. Produced by the Easily Distracted Theatre at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater, right across the hall from (and until last year part of) Magic Theatre, the new play written and directed by Bay Area filmmaker Ruben Grijalva falls squarely in that tradition and combines it with another time-honored fictional device—the quest for eternal life.

Rather than anything so messy as literally transplanting his brain into a new body, in Foresight the visionary Victor Martinez creates a virtual version of himself and tries to impart as many of his memories and personality traits as possible for the new Victor to for all intents and purposes be him when the “obsolete hardware” of his body peters out.

Virtual characters aren’t exactly a new idea either (remember Max Headroom?), and there have certainly been plays with computerized characters before. Three years ago, when this same theater was still part of the Magic, the company staged C. Michèle Kaplan’s ’Bot right across the hall, a play that also featured a computerized alter ego born of a human character’s quest for electronic immortality.

If the idea sounds uncomfortably like the set-up for a horror story, there’s good reason for that. The guy who’s creating artificial second life in order to conquer death is named Victor, and his daughter is named Shelley, with the affectionate nickname “Monster.” In case that’s too subtle, his favorite book to read her is Frankenstein. That said, I am a little disappointed that the breakfast cereal Victor snacks on while he’s still alive is Honey Smacks and not Frankenberries.

The set is an octagonal living room dominated by video screens, with a small kitchen nook on one side and a window to a painted view on the other. Although they have a sleep modern look, the counter and furniture also look flimsy and unfinished, highlighting the artificiality of the setting. What I thought might be an oversize, futuristic urn for Victor’s ashes—which is clearly actually an oval-shaped white trash can on a pedestal—turns out to be representing the hard drive for Web Johnny and Victor 2.0. (The actual urn does make an appearance eventually.)

Web Johnny is a floating head on a video screen that not only answers all spoken questions in a conversational tone as an Internet gateway with personality, but he also adjust the lights, air conditioning, phone, door locks and vacuum cleaner as instructed. (The vacuum here is played by a remote-controlled car or something like that under a bicycle helmet.) He also can make groceries and other items appear in an automated breadbox through some kind of molecular-recoding technology.

When Victor Martinez, the programmer who created Web Johnny, finds out he’s dying, he steps down as CEO of his company and devotes himself to programming as much of his personality into Web Johnny as possible, and training him to fake the rest, so that his baby daughter will grow up with a father, albeit a disembodied one.

We only see this training after we’ve spent a while with the family 16 years later. Homeschooled by Victor 2.0 (who everybody just calls Victor, and who insists he is Victor in every way that counts), the sheltered teenage Shelley has no idea that her father ever was flesh and blood and doesn’t even really know where babies come from. Shelley’s mother Lorena has grown pretty sick of life with her omnipresent dead husband and spends her time either drunk or out with her boyfriend, or both.

With a stentorian voice, GreyWolf has an amusing admixture of awkward unnaturalness and all-too-human overbearing neediness as Victor, playful and indulgent with Shelley, naggingly passive-aggressive with Lorena and holding court in his own don’t-mind-me way like the Great and Powerful Oz, undermining Lorena’s authority and manipulating her with wedding and baby videos from when he was alive. As the play hops back and forth in time, we can see some progress between the early, tentative virtual Victor and the later Victor who’s grown more into himself.

Using backstage green screen to capture live performance, the video Victor is well designed by Dave Grijalva and operated by Paul Grijalva, a floating head with icons popping up around him whenever he accesses the news or opens a new application. There are some minor timing issues between the virtual and human characters that slow things down a bit, but not too badly, and the virtual Victor looks more in someone’s general vicinity than actually at them.  Everyone’s very natural with Victor, as they would be after so much time, which helps the audience accept him too.

With boundless energy and a cutesy little-girl voice, Luisa Frasconi’s Shelley is 13 but acts more like a precocious 6-year-old when quizzed by Victor on heavy academic subjects, game-show style. When Lorena’s boyfriend Allan calls her deranged, that seems pretty fair. Sarah Shoshana David is particularly entertaining as the long-suffering, blowsy, boozy Lorena and her younger, happier self when Victor’s still alive. Angelina Llongueras is appealingly doting grandmother and disapproving mother-in-law as Victor’s wheelchair-bound mother, Maria. The disembodied head of Truckee Lynch has an amusingly unctuous form of smarmy charm as the entirely virtual character Web Johnny, his face permanently settled in a self-satisfied smirk.

Don Hardwick has a bland wallflower quality as Victor’s less visionary coworker Melvin, and when he comes in with a sob story it’s hard to tell whether he’s acting unnatural because he’s lying or because he’s just really awkward. The introductory conference speeches from Melvin and Victor are stiff and tedious, but there’s certainly some verisimilitude in that. Jarrod Pirtle’s Allan comes off mostly as a smug jerk, dismissive of Victor and walking in like he owns the place, which has the odd effect of shifting our sympathies toward the worrisomely self-aware and self-interested computer program. The first Victor trained the second to see himself as the next stage of evolution, and the tension lies in not knowing how expendable that makes everyone else.

The play runs about two and a half hours and could stand to be tightened. One device that doesn’t add much is that sometimes during blackouts between scenes the flatscreen in front of the stage shows distorted videos of the scene that’s about to begin from Victor 2.0’s point of view. The ending feels a bit scattered, and some of the speeches about how everything’s made up of numbers and code go on too long. Overall, however, it’s an entertaining play with more than a few funny moments and some effective bits of suspense. Like Victor 2.0 himself, Foresight isn’t really some great evolutionary leap for theater, but it’s an interesting contraption nonetheless.

Foresight runs through June 18 at the Southside Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco. http://www.easilydistracted.com

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