The Singularity Play is probably both the most disturbing *and* empathetic AI play possible

Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis

As Artificial Intelligence, that long-awaited and long-feared (formerly) science fiction development, inserts itself more and more into our lives, it is only logical that plays will be written about it. Why not, when we have just been through a year of Hollywood strikes stemming largely from the notion that AI might take over the jobs of writers and even actors? Will our future, which is already having its parameters defined by algorithms few of us even understand, consist of machine-driven and machine-created entertainment? That not-unreasonable fear is at the core of Jay Stull’s The Singularity Play, now playing at the intimate Berger Park Coach House in a Jackalope Theatre production, the primary conceit of which is that it is about a play written by AI, stoking our anxiety that even the arts will be overtaken by computers.

More than that, though, The Singularity Play is about what we as human beings actually want as much as what we fear…and maybe—just maybe—our AI fears might be misplaced. Is a blending of human nature with AI necessarily a bad thing? Taking place in a future in which the human race appears to be suffering from a moribundity stemming from the rapidly diminishing ability to have babies, Stull postulates that the only way to keep us—and our history and our emotions—alive is to use the exponential power of our computer creations. (How perfect then that the play unrolls in a facility run by Google!)

Director Georgette Verdin orchestrates an evening that challenges actors and audience alike. Almost all of the actors play multiple roles with a lot of rapid-fire dialogue in a show that takes place through changes that take place in only a few generations, which certainly reflects things as they are in the computer age.) In the opening scene, a group of players sits in a conference room at Google working on lines from the new AI-written play, arguing about what does and does not sound human or realistic. Some of them are open to this new frontier; others are not, but jobs are scarce, so here they are. (One character, Madison Hill’s Henry, is utterly focused on the very human notion of money, refusing even to have play-related conversation during breaks when they are not being paid, a reminder of the stakes here.)

Two non-“actor” characters are in the room. The first is the liaison between Google and this group, a tech named Greg who is responsible for actually writing (and revising on the fly) the code that feeds the AI’s algorithm. The second is the AI itself, which goes by the name Denise and joins them through a smart speaker on the table. (It probably should have been a Google Home, but it didn’t look like one to me.) Interestingly, Anelga Hajjar’s Denise often seems more “human” than Patrick Newman, Jr’s officious and aloof Greg: perhaps a foreshadowing of the humanizing of AI that comes in later scenes. (In one of them, we discover that most humans prefer to live “in world”; that is, they shut down their human bodies and retreat within the cyber implants in their brains to a virtual world made just for them, a possibility whose ancestors are already being modeled today.)

The rest of the cast, all of whom have major moments, consists of Lucy Carapetyan, whose Alice spawns a lot of the anti-AI feeling in the first scene; Kroydell Galima, whose Jason is a young man who experiences the kind of loss that, in Hamilton, is called “unimaginable”; Christine Gorman, who plays the director trying to keep the Scene One actors focused even though she too is uncertain about all of this; Jennifer Jelsema, whose very sympathetic Dawn is one of the last fully human people on Earth; Ashley Neal, whose multiple characters often provide the very souls of her scenes; and Paloma Nozicka, who plays the embodiment of another AI, making a character that is actually a bit of code into something moral, sympathetic, and sensual.

Even the cyborg beings we meet in the gender distinction-free future—there is some side-eye about the “mansplaining” done by “Greg-straight-cis-male” as he programs gendered code—enjoy human pleasure, giving in to the physical abandonment of club-style dancing, as Verdin, lighting designer Eric Watkins, sound designer Christopher Kriz, and movement director Colin Quinn Rice show us in several interludes throughout the play. We may evolve not to need our bodies, but the pleasure we get from our human senses apparently beats whatever cyber-imitation can be coded for us.

The possibilities, both positive and negative, of evolving AI have been portrayed in movies for decades from the fearful applications of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix to the more benign portrayals of AI: Artificial Intelligence and Her. Writer Stull and director Verdin have created a fully realized, haunting depiction of a future when exponential improvements in computer intelligence and technology will essentially and permanently change human society. It’s a future we have been wading into for a long time and one we now seem poised to jump into head first. The Singularity Play suggests that humans have little to fear from AI, which after all is programmed in our image, but that it cannot save us from ourselves. Still, the image of AI Denise’s undulating and sensual dancing—with no humans around—has to leave us questioning just what our role will be in the future we are creating.

The Singularity Play is presented by Jackalope Theatre Company and is now playing at the Berger Park Coach House until June 22. Performance times vary; check the website at the Jackalope website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *