produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble, featuring, Rachael Hip-Flores, David Ian Lee, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Nitya Vidyasagar, and Ken Glickfeld.
The Secret Theatre, Long Island City.
DANIEL: If anyone needs more of the research presented, then—
MAC: I don’t, I’m in.
DANIEL: Oh, good.
MAC: When the singularity knocks, you open the door, know what I’m saying?
—Deinde, August Schulenburg
A few years ago, I attended the Singularity Summit in New York City hosted by the Singularity Institute. It would be an understatement to say it was an odd experience for me. Out of a room of perhaps twenty individuals in the post-conference planning session for the next conference, I was the only humanities person in the room. Sitting there sandwiched between an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist (two of only four women in the room), I felt slightly alien. The questions being raised weren’t beyond my understanding—I have read Rucker and Sawyer for heaven’s sake. Upload a consciousness? Sure. Why not? Create an A.I. and make sure that any ethics and morals coded in can change over time if necessary (kudos on accounting for change so that we don’t have some kind of Terminator or Matrix situation). What concerned me, however, were the questions hovering just beneath these ideas. Exactly who gets uploaded? How is that determined? What kind of rights will they have? Whose morals and ethics will be chosen? Will we still be human?
Details? Yes. But isn’t that where the devil is?
Flux Theatre Ensemble’s latest season explores what makes us human, and more specifically, what we call “self.” The company creates quirky performances couching uncomfortable questions in beautiful, edgy scripts, ensemble virtuosity, and innovative production design. For their fifth season, “What Happens Now?”, Flux ponders answers commonly given to the question of what makes us human. The season opened with artistic director/playwright August Schulenburg’s latest play Deinde at the Secret Theatre in May.
The play is set in a near future where a global pandemic has cut through humanity faster than the team of quantum biologists at QuamBi Laboratories can find a vaccine. The virus replicates more rapidly than any one mutation can be studied, making the discovery of a cure difficult if not impossible. Millions have died, and now quantum computer specialist Daniel Nemerov (Matthew Trumbull) has created the next step in quantum computing, deinde, which allows scientists to think directly into the computer (looping) with enhanced memory, augmented intellect, and increased neurological processing speed to keep up with the virus. deinde (Latin for “next”) stands for Dineural Entangled Intelligence Network Device. There are, however, strict rules governing its use:
Rule #1. When using deinde, think only of work. Because the computer remembers for you, when you unplug you forget. For example, if you think of a shopping list you won’t remember it; the computer will.
Rule #2. Do not remain connected outside the lab as prolonged exposure has side-effects. A larger intelligence requires more sleep, and humans need sleep to function. In addition to this need, dreaming is more intense and vivid.
Rule #3. Do not use deinde to communicate with one another. While the computer enhances intelligence, it does not change psychological or behavioral tendencies. Humans are violent animals, and direct connection with another mind could cause damage.
Rule #4. Do not use deinde to access the world online. There are limitations to the human mind, and it cannot handle the magnitude of what’s out there.
The two youngest scientists, Jenni Long (Rachel Hip-Flores) and Mac Silverhorn (Isaiah Tanenbaum), readily acquiesce to the restrictions in the hope of finding a vaccine. Not everyone is keen to use it, however. The oldest scientist in the group, Malcolm Forner (Ken Glickfeld), refuses because he is suspicious about the lack of research on the effects of its use on humans. Cooper Sands (David Ian Lee), another team scientist, also doesn’t immediately sign on for reasons similar to Malcolm’s. Eventually, he does acquiesce because his wife, Dara (Alyssa Simon) is dying from the virus. He has begun a relationship with Nabanita “Nita” Ghosh (Nitya Vidyasagar), but cannot move on until Dara dies or gets better. Meanwhile, as team leader, Nita must supervise the users and negotiate her complex feelings for and relationship with Cooper.
Everything goes well—at first. They search for the all-important numbers that could vanquish the virus, but the computer begins to exact its price. The youngest team members, who wholeheartedly embraced the project, are sleeping a great deal, although odd lucid dreams disrupt their rest. Jenni’s partner, Mindy Alvarez (Sol Marina Crespo), notices Jenni’s odd behavior, commenting on her sudden inability to tie her shoes. As Jenni and Mac continue to use deinde, another side-effect manifests as violent emotion, prompting Mac to kill his best friend Bobby Pachiachi (Matthew Murumba). Eventually, Jenni and Mac begin to share their thoughts directly, and this increased awareness and consciousness leads them to look on other team members with contempt for their limitations. At no point do they see anything wrong with their thoughts or actions—they are trying to save the world. Having created a vaccine, they now believe they can change the course of time itself, bringing back those who have died.
While the others have been bending and breaking the rules to find a cure, Cooper, who has not broken the rules, returns home to tell his wife that there is now a vaccine. Dara is ecstatic about news that she will live, and in a heartfelt act of contrition, she promises to be a better person, a better wife. She becomes more hysterically emphatic only to have Cooper suddenly stop her with the blunt statement that he no longer loves her and that he is leaving her. Later, he finds out that she has killed herself, and guilt prompts him to join Jenni and Mac in finding a way to cheat death.
In their zeal, Jenni and Mac have made it clear that before any further work can be done, Nita will have to fire Malcolm, who has become a threat in his warnings about the consequences of relying on deinde and his refusal to participate. Nita does so, but Malcolm eventually returns with the authorities. He had gone to Mac’s house in order to apologize and found Bobby’s body. He’s attemtpts to distract Nita while others take the power down in order to forcibly put a stop to the two scientists. But Malcolm divulges the plan to stop the computer, including the fact that the sudden power cut to deinde will roughly result in a lobotomy for anyone actively looped in. Nita knows that Cooper is looped in and rushes off to save him before the power is cut. She manages to break his link, but Cooper cries out in agony and collapses.
Jenni/Mac, completely sharing consciousness, have entered the Internet and realized what Malcolm and the authorities have intended. Having had the original plan thwarted, Malcolm confronts the two scientists at gunpoint. Jenni/Mac convinces Malcolm to join them, looping him into deinde. But Malcolm’s capitulation disguises a Trojan horse designed to activate should he loop in. The malware acts almost instantly. Malcolm confesses to Nita that he knew it was a suicide mission. Mac dies as he tries to kill Malcolm, while Nita saves Jenni at the last moment by breaking the neural link.
In the final scene, many months later, Nita and Cooper visit Jenni in the hospital. Jenni has failed to regain consciousness, but her partner, Mindy, has stayed with her and admits that Jenni sometimes responds to simple songs. Cooper has also been affected though not to the same extent. He has mobility, but his mind has been shattered. Cooper can follow simple directions and knows very few words. In essence he’s become a child. The play closes with Nita and Mindy singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” with Cooper occasionally managing to say the word “spider” as the lights slowly dim to black.
The simple, stark, and powerful closing scene stayed with me for several days. I doubt that would have happened had it not been for director Heather Cohn’s subtle but very effective hand in leading me through the play. Great work, however, requires quality materials, and I laud Flux’s ability to cast solid acting ensembles, as they did here. Matthew Trumbull, very engaging as the computer designer, Daniel, used an understated Russian accent, usually a risky choice if the actor cannot maintain it throughout the performance or relies on shallow linguistic stereotyping. Neither of these were a problem here. His choice gave the character an earnest demeanor without compromising the impression of an exceedingly brilliant scientist, even in more humorous moments. Trumbull stepped from computer expert to scientific fan boy lending charm and humor to scenes that required a light touch while imparting important exposition.
The other actors portraying the three more minor characters gave them surprisingly rich depth despite their limited amount of stage time. Sol Marina Crespo, as Jenni’s sassy, outspoken partner, Mindy, lent nuances to what might have merely been comic relief. However, she granted the audience glimpses behind Mindy’s wit by revealing via facial expression her concern even as she delivered feisty rejoinders.
Mac’s best friend Bobby became tragically compelling in the hands of Matthew Murumba. At the beginning of his single scene, Murumba lent an easygoing humor to the character which turned to a disbelieving horror—even as Mac kills him, his voice and face retained a sense of incredulousness at his situation.
The only mixed performance for the evening came from Simon’s Dara. Initially, she imbued Dara with a wonderful combination of anger and spite over her slow impending death, and effectively directed it at Lee, playing her husband Cooper. Her fear and resentment found succinct expression in her hunched yet confrontational posture. Simon’s later scene did not have the same depth. Dara’s sudden and unexpected reprieve from her death sentence triggers the expected “I’ll do better this time/I won’t waste my second chance” response. While certainly delivered with a heartfelt sincerity, her shrill vocal quality left little room to create variances in volume and tone. It lacked the nuance necessary to compound Cooper’s already profound sense of self-loathing.
Vidyasagar’s Nita suggested a smart woman trying to balance science and necessary bureaucracy, with getting a group of brilliant, quirky scientists to work together—not always successfully. Vidyasagar created an unflappable team leader without sacrificing Nita’s vulnerability. Her small physical hesitations in scenes with Cooper became wrenching; desperately wanting to touch him, she constantly held back. The effect conveyed frustrated love as well as respect for his difficult situation, making her final scene with Cooper more powerful. For his part, Lee’s Cooper was a torn man very nearly broken by his circumstances and his desire to be honorable. Lee expressed Cooper’s struggle through a physical sense of holding an enormous weight. He exerted a great effort to maintain an elegant posture, rather than rely on slouching. This made his moments of giving in, hunching his shoulders, more effective. Through this physicality, Lee managed to add to it a question of whether Cooper was attempting to “do the right thing” for his dying wife or to make himself feel better about leaving her.
Rounding out the older members of the research team, Glickfeld’s Malcolm carried the good-natured gravitas of an elderly man (passing mention is made that Malcolm is rather spry for a 95-year-old) who has gracefully weathered the tragedy of the plague and moved with the times. However, even though Malcolm could hardly be classed as a technophobic Luddite, the character stood as the voice of human reason in the face of questionable, albeit advanced, technology. Glickfeld did not take the easy route of stereotypical grouch, instead choosing to focus on Malcolm as a rational scientist balanced by a more emotional father figure. In his final scene, even as Malcolm finds oneness when he loops into deinde, Glickfeld simultaneously projected a sense of wonder at the mind’s new vistas and an absolute rejection of the experience—that humanity isn’t meant to hold this kind of unquestionable knowledge and power. Glickfeld took pains to stress Malcolm as the individual who wanted to know what the hitch was when tempted with a different kind of Apple (pun intended).
Jenni and Mac offered a different set of challenges for Hip-Flores and Tanenbaum. The expression of youthful competition came off in places as a bit too young considering their positions on the team, but in retrospect the choice worked with one of the play’s through-lines—humanity is childlike in the face of some potential technologies. As the two characters broke each rule of computer usage one by one, the two actors moved from childlike wonder to childish tantrums followed by a sudden mature jump forward into a new humanity, represented by their merge into one “person.” Hip-Flores and Tanenbaum shared and alternated movement as well as dialogue, which became downright spooky, and as the play went on, the synchronization increased and tightened. The fractional hesitation I expected when speaking at the same time wasn’t there—at all. The two actors didn’t even need to cue off of one another (at least that I noticed). The sudden seriousness and rapid fire shared dialogue created an eerie sense that although intentions were good, ultimately unlooped humanity was little more than a potential science experiment to those looped into deinde.
The set, in contrast with the complex ideas of the play, was kept brilliantly and elegantly simple by designer Will Lowry. The rectangular thrust stage had its longest side at the front with the two shorter sides at stage right and left. A grid of rectangles decorated the floor. The rear wall and two smaller partitions backing the audience seating at stage right and left were painted like blackboards. Various equations and molecular models covered the surfaces. Four clear plexiglass panels hung by wires at regular intervals across the performance area two-thirds of the way upstage. These panels served as computer interfaces (when an actor stood behind one), computer presentations (while the actors are in front of them), and as corridor markers (as with exits and Cooper’s home). At the beginning of the action, there is a large clear-topped table and four chairs. Coffee cups litter the surface and there is a chess set with a partially played game on one side. This table and other items such as a sofa were added and shifted between scenes to provide other locations such as Nita’s office, Jenni’s apartment, and Mac’s house.
When portraying a futuristic world, in particular an advanced laboratory, fabricating sufficiently complicated gadgetry can become problematic. In this case, props went in the opposite direction, toward utter minimalism, using suggestion to great effect. Throughout the play the characters needed to use handheld computers and phones—all of which were made from the same clear plexiglass as the panels. Even the recording of Nita’s favorite old television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, used a format represented by a clear cube. The matter-of-factness with which the actors handled the items sold the “technology” effectively. The items became transparent—I noted them as futuristic but was not distracted by them nor did they break the suspension of disbelief.
Lighting denoted and drew attention to specific playing areas as well as assisting in minimal—though not always effective—special effects. Some scenes took place simultaneously in different stage areas where focused area lights drew the audience’s attention—a standard, tried and true technique. Not so standard was the need to represent a futuristic quantum computer. Blue downlighting on the plexiglass represented active computer usage, as with the presentation of deinde given by Daniel at the beginning of the play. The thickness of the panels and the focal distance of the light being used made this difficult and not always visible, but the design idea was innovative even if the execution was inconsistent. However, props/costuming reinforced the lighting as a cue for the computer. In an effect eerily reminiscent of the Borg, Trumbull wore something similar to a Bluetooth device with a bright blue light facing outward worn on the actor’s right ear.
Costuming, like the set and props, remained simple. While working inside QuamBi, the characters donned white lab coats with the company logo on the front—an uppercase “Q” and a lowercase “b” cleverly linked as two carbon molecules. In other scenes, the characters wore simple street clothing. Designer Stephanie Levin didn’t use any overtly futuristic clothing—a mistake perpetrated by many—making it easy to imagine the world of the play as it unfolded in the year 2051.
Finally, filling the sonic space between scenes, Martha Goode’s sound design returned again and again to simple nursery tunes played by music boxes which sounded tinny, eerie, and seemingly out of place in the setting. As the action advanced and the characters moved from “infants” to angry “adolescents,” the music did as well, shifting to jarring musical abstracts made by Mac while looped in. When the characters finally mature in their symbiosis with deinde and one another, complex classical music signals this aptheosis only to return to the simple nursery rhymes in the play’s final scene.
Looking back to past theatrical treatments of computers and physics, playwrights seem to prefer quantum mechanics for flavoring and driving their plays. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998), while not following quantum physics per se, does examine what might have occurred during the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Now then again (2000) by Penny Penniston more directly relates to the application of quantum mechanics—specifically using it to explore a love triangle.
As usual, sf has produced an embarrassment of riches on computing, quantum mechanics, quantum computing, and of course viruses taking down various societies/planets/races/species. While there is such a virus in Deinde, it only serves as a catalyst for the technological innovation that forms the central concern of the play. One particularly early work of sf examines the end result of absolute dependence on the machines that make life and work easier. E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) posits that humans have moved underground and become entirely dependent upon the Machine for their existence. Eventually, the Machine breaks, as all machines do, taking the underground civilization with it. deinde, like Forster’s Machine, does everything for the scientists, especially serving as memory, so much so that material thought while looped in becomes lost. Jenni and Mac act like drug addicts, spending more and more time online, becoming ever more dependent on thinking through and with the machine. Ultimately, without deinde, and by extension the human acts of remembering and forgetting, their minds shatter or die.
After breaking all the rules and remaining looped in, the younger scientists exhibit a benevolent disdain for other humans and feel that they are there to save humanity from itself—whether it wants that or not. The behavior culminates in Jenni/Mac’s belief that they can change time and nullify death, certainly the purview of gods. “Answer” (1954), a classic sf short-short by Fredric Brown carried one simple premise: 96 billion worlds link every computational machine together to ask a single question, “Is there a God?” The resulting machine answers, “Yes, now there is a God.” What the humans of Brown’s story and Jenni/Mac should have asked instead is, “Just because we can, should we?”
And Flux Theatre Ensemble excels at asking the right questions at the right time under the canny direction of August Schulenburg. In theatre, “triple threat” refers to actors capable of acting, singing, and dancing. There is, however, a higher sort of triple threat where the person in question is not only a talented artist in terms of acting ability, but also directs and writes with equal facility. Schulenburg is one of those rarer sort. At the helm of Flux as its artistic director, he has consistently created seasons designed to provoke sincere examination of human foibles, flaws, and triumphs. To this, he adds a writing style that artfully blends damaged, likeable characters, humor, and disturbing situations with no easy solution.
When I asked Schulenburg in an email what sort of sf influences guided his writing of Deinde, he frankly replied, “The truth is I don’t actually read or watch much sf these days.” As a child, Schulenburg “devoured” sf along with fantasy and states, “the L’Engle books had a HUGE impact on me, with A Swiftly Tilting Planet being a special favorite.” What Schulenburg has been reading lately and voraciously are science magazines and books for the masses, in particular the work of Brian Greene in quantum physics and V. S. Ramachandran’s research in neuroscience. “While I’m aware of the Singularity movement, and familiar with its basic tenets, the plot of the play emerged from nothing more than imagining current innovations taken to their potential conclusions”—as would any good sf work.
In Deinde, Schulenburg queries what constitutes “human” in a thought-provoking and extensive playwright’s note in the program. Select portions of this pertain to sf:
Only in the realms of science fiction and Singularity are the forward borders of consciousness explored. . . . What if these questions moved from future imagination into real world ethics, here and now? . . . But what surprised me in writing this play was how important the things we might leave behind became. Our flaws, our failures, our forgetting: these things were transmuted into something precious and essential.
Throughout the play, characters return to how this frontier is like being a child or baby and having to relearn how to think, how to use something new as an extension of our minds and body. It feels disturbing to watch scientists—perhaps the ultimate image of human intellect and achievement—behave like children, forget simple behaviors, and eventually have their intellect reduced, due to hubris, to a childlike state. Perhaps there but for the grace of God go we all.
Looking back on past reviews I have written, a majority of the performances I’ve seen hinge on our relationship with technology—a man who built his own robotic companions (Robots, NYRSF 259), chatbots replacing actors (Hello. Hi, There, NYRSF 270), a businessman who becomes a computer (Death and the Powers, NYRSF 277) to name only a few. Most of these present a deep concern over, discomfort with, or disturbing views of technologic reliance and merging. In these cases, humanity embodied by one person stands in peril of losing our/their humanity, but what can be done in the onslaught of inevitable progress? When does beneficial crossover to harmful? As the characters sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” the meaning in the context of Schulenburg’s inquiry settled into more deeply layered nuances. Humanity, like the stalwart spider, will get washed away time and time again and yet will always go back to climbing up the water spout, hoping, perhaps this time, to get to the top.
Jen Gunnels is looped into the sf theatre megamind. In November, she will be speaking on the future of sf theatre at the "Visions of the Future" Flair Symposium at the University of Texas at Austin. She was recently invited to become a contributing editor for theatre and performance for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.