Personality Verging on Personhood: PROXY at Rapid Lemon
Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 12, 2019
Full disclosure up front: This last spring, Rapid Lemon Productions produced and director T.P. Huth directed a short play written by this reviewer.
Cheating mortality is an old human preoccupation; robotics and Artificial Intelligence are more recent ones. They are mingled and reconsidered in Alex Reeves’ and Nell Quinn-Gibney’s Proxy, receiving a world premiere production at the Theatre Project courtesy of Baltimore’s Rapid Lemon Productions. The premise is simple: As the play starts, Kassa (Autumn Koehnlein) is dying of cancer, leaving her guy Rennek (Noah Silas) and her teenaged sister Kai (Ruth Elizabeth Diaz) prospectively bereft. To ease the impending bereavement for Kai, Kassa has arranged to be replaced by a robot who will resemble Kassa in more than body; while the bodily replacement is being fabricated, Kassa’s mind and manners are being gradually uploaded into another, more generic robot, Again (Rose Hahn, pictured above), who will eventually transfer what she has learned into the proxy Kassa. In order to help the learning process, Again stands 24/7 watch over Kassa, often trying to mimic precisely what Kassa does or says.
This premise of course lands the narrative in the realm of science fiction, since these technologies don’t yet exist, or at least not in the depicted stage of development. And science fiction, a genre with deep roots in the superficially sensational pulp magazines of the middle of the last century, has traditionally been looked down upon by some for skimping on character and psychology in favor of gimmickry. As such, science fiction would also not be replete with what theatergoers traditionally seek in drama. But even back in the pulp era, the British novelist Kingsley Amis led the charge of those who rejected this kind of condescension. “[F]irst place literary quality,” he wrote in 1960, is to be found in science fiction if readers “take the trouble to look for it.” Rewards are there “from any old point of view, whether literary, sociological, psychological, political or what you will.” Proxy, which arguably embraces all those points of view and is presented with some dramatic grace, stands as testimony to Amis’ comment. As noted, the technologies that drive Proxy are not fully implemented yet, but we’re obviously headed in their general direction, and it would be contrary to common sense and to our nature as a species not to consider their implications. And for delving into those implications, science fiction is a fine tool, and so is drama.
As the play progresses, two of the biggest questions of robotics and AI come to the fore.
There is the Turing Test question, which considers non-biological humanity from the viewpoint of us biological humans: at what point does a native human observer lose the ability or the need to distinguish between biological and non-biological intelligence? (Alan Turing thought the points were identical, i.e. that once we couldn’t distinguish, we did not need to either.) As presented in Proxy, once Kassa has been replaced by a robot who looks just like her, are Kai (the intended beneficiary of the substitution) or Rennek (who was never on board with the swap but now finds himself attracted to the proxy Kassa) required or ethically permitted to deal with her as if she were another human? The dramatic potential of this question is undeniable.
And the even more interesting question is internal to the robots, although it has implications for the other characters as well. If you will, it is the Turing Test viewed from the inside: at what point does a robot become a person to herself, and if that occurs, what rights does that artificial humanity have? Reese and Quinn-Gibney have done an interesting job unpacking this issue. At its heart it is about the mysterious thing religions have called soul and science has often referred to as consciousness. We humans have knowledge of ourselves, and respond to the world around us with emotions. The best computer programmers, so far as I know, have not been able to create either self-knowledge or emotions; the best we can do is make machines act as if they possessed these things. Perhaps we can fabricate simulacra of humans we cannot distinguish from biological humans; but if the simulacra do not objectively possess self-knowledge and emotions, we might very well continue to consider them so different from the rest of us that they are not to be treated as our equivalents socially or in law. From the time of the Declaration of Independence, we have held that “all men … are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.” If robots are not exactly men or women, are they covered by that holding? In dramatic terms, both Again, who continues in her career of uploading people’s personalities and memories after the swapping of the robot Kassa for the original one, and the substitute Kassa acquire senses of identity and emotion. And on that basis they want, indeed insist upon, one of the rights that the Declaration recognized that “men” inalienably possess: the right to pursue happiness. How will the native-born humans respond?
Let me add that there is more to the play than the dramatization of Big Questions. And while it’s no doubt evident from what I’ve already said that I think Reese and Quinn-Gibney have done an admirable job handling those, I’m less satisfied with their treatment of the human family unit (Kassa, Kai and Rennek) around whom the Big Questions swirl. For whatever reason, Kassa and Kai do not come across as real sisters, and Kassa and Rennek do not come across as real lovers. And yes, we know that when a family member is dying, the pain of it can drive others who love them to treat them distantly and to act out. But we got so much distant treatment and acting out from these characters that the asserted bonds between them and Kassa became dramatically unconvincing. For instance, Kai’s insistent brattiness and sarcasm toward Kassa left me unpersuaded that any big sister treated that way would spring for a replacement robot – or that Kai deserved one. And Rennek’s discomfort with Again’s presence in the room so continually led him to brush off Kassa’s efforts at tenderness and connection that at some point I could no longer credit their supposed relationship. Surely a guy genuinely invested in the happiness of a dying lover would grant her a little more indulgence and deal a little more effectively with his counterproductive annoyance?
No, it was the stuff with the robots that was dramatically interesting – and often moving. I particularly liked the robotic mannerisms, including Max Headroom-like stutters when something in their heads wasn’t computing smoothly, and the human-but-not-quite movements that Rose Hahn brings to the character of Again. And the genuine pathos in the reactions of a robot who wants to inhabit more deeply the persona of a human loved and lost. And the confusion experienced by a robot dealing with the superposition of multiple uploaded and incompletely wiped characters in her head. All of this was also aided by the evocation of virtual reality via the projections (courtesy of Judson Ridings), which included lakes, mountains, and digital data streams. And in any show that involves futuristic high tech, the sound design (here by Rapid Lemon founder Max Garner) is important; there were various nifty and, more importantly, convincing noises spread throughout the show. One can’t speak entirely meaningfully of a sense of accuracy and getting it right when the subject is the future, but my sense nonetheless is that getting it right is what the show as a whole, and this production in particular, were doing.
One of the things drama does so well is to make us think and feel about the vectors a society is following. And one of the things happening in our society that drama needs to address is our headlong rush into technology with a personality verging on personhood. Proxy is a thoughtful and perceptive consideration of that rush. It deserves an audience.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.
Photo credit: Rapid Lemon Productions