Most visions of the future grow from a question that begins “What if…?”.
Wake, onstage at City Garage, seems to have been bred in the soup of conjecture that claims electronic media are making us more and more isolated. “What if the electronics take over and AI creatures become dominant while we humans, unable to work together, destroy the planet?”
Not a bad premise for a sci-fi tale. But Wake is not about eco-disaster, nor about our fear of alien domination (whether by space invaders, apes, robots, or virtual-reality avatars). Nor is it one of the many offspring of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s dark warning about the hubris of science and technology.
Wake reaches deeper, peering into the human soul. Its animating question really appears to be, “What sort of beings are we?”
Irene awakens from cryogenic suspension centuries (perhaps millennia) from now. Greeting her is May, a chirpy, curious person who turns out to be virtual. Irene, she explains, has been retrieved by The Platform, an entity that has all the resources needed to sustain her. May is one of its avatars. So is Sen, an awkward fellow we later meet. Even The Platform itself appears in a virtual persona. They’re all gently solicitous, but …
What this hyperspace hospital ship doesn’t have — or won’t share — is information. What year is this? Where are the others? What has happened? Irene’s pressing questions (which are also ours) are ignored, brushed aside, deferred.
Eventually, she persuades The Platform that she can handle whatever is being withheld. Her first dose of the unknown is a meeting with Sarah, who turns out to be the only other human successfully rescued so far. And, it further turns out, Sarah died decades ago — she’s yet another hologram.
Irene is thus faced with continuing life alone, perhaps for centuries, with only her caretakers and other virtual beings for company. Or she can, as Sarah has done, decline The Platform’s sustaining embrace and walk out into the ravaged world to meet death.
Once she realizes what her options are, Irene makes her choice. To playwright Gordon Dahlquist’s credit, we don’t see what it is — we only know she’s made it.
As usual, City Garage gives the story and its apparatus an elegant, powerful production. Rectilinear walkways (Charles Duncombe), reflective jumpsuits (Josephine Poinsot), and mirrored movements (director Frédérique Michel) neatly evoke the binary virtual world with a minimum of fuss. Simple, ominous projected images (Duncombe) and sound (Jeffrey Gardner) complete this unfamiliar but very recognizable “reality.”
As Irene, Natasha St. Clair-Johnson displays the bristly confusion of someone trying to cope where she can find no ground, and brings us swiftly into sympathy. Alicia Rose Ivanhoe makes May a comic delight, bearing awful news with innocence, sharing her questions and misinformation about Irene’s gone world like an eager grad student. As Sen, Jeffrey Gardner gives us a glimpse of those same qualities unredeemed by much in the way of intellect or sensitivity.
Sandy Mansson, as Sarah, smoothly leads us from hope to the realization that she’s but an artifact of the entity’s electronic memory. And Megan Kim, as The Platform, holds the story (and its mystery) together with easy command. She also focuses all her power — which, in this virtual world, is absolute and at first threatening — into a genuine, intelligent concern for Irene’s welfare.
Wake brings us at once into its dream, and holds us there. It is a delicate dream, though filled with the unknown’s seeming danger; and it moves us steadily onward like a dream does, allowing us only to feel the edges of the questions beneath its surface. Yet by the end, we know where we’ve been, and are grateful.
Recently, anthropologists have recognized that humankind’s distinctive feature as a species is not intelligence or tool use, but our remarkable ability to cooperate. And neuroscientists now see “a human brain” as an oxymoron — for this organ can develop and function only as part of a living network of brains (google “Cozolino”).
In Wake, the science-fictional apparatus is not the story, but brings us to the story and its animating question: Who are we without one another? This — not a fictional “What if…?” — is what we leave the theatre pondering. As we should: It’s something, in these times, that we need to think about.
[A Note about Play: While Wake explores deep matters, its touch is gentle, light — and it’s rich with humor.
Not least is the way it plays with the tropes of science fiction. For example, all the characters are female except Sen, who’s decorative but offers no insight or even a plot point. For another, the all-powerful Platform is nurturing, caring — not an emotionless cyborg.
And then there’s the title’s wordplay. Irene does wake — not once but three times, from cryo-sleep, and then to her situation, and ultimately to her nature. Also, she and The Platform are what’s left in the wake of an eco-disaster. And finally, she is unable to mourn the people she has lost, to hold a wake.
Such lively inventiveness keeps this work a play, even as it invites us to peer into an apocalyse and into our deepest selves.]
Wake, by Gordon Dahlquist, directed by Frédérique Michel.
Presented by City Garage, at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2625 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through Dec. 17th.
(Dark Nov. 24 and 25, and Dec. 10.)