Despite the word “robot” being initially coined in Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R, “science,” “fiction” and “play” are three words not generally associated with each other.
Truth be told, Deborah Yarchun’s Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon is less sci-fi and more a scary not-so-speculative, not-so-fictional story. Sheri Lee Miller directs the world premiere production running at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park through Aug. 28.
Yarchun’s play centers on Irene—an endurance race of a performance by Taylor Diffenderfer—an investigative journalist now reduced to copy editor for bot-generated work. Again, not so far-fetched. We’re looking at you, New Yorker poetry.
Irene is leery of all the smart technology in her home. Everything from the lights to the refrigerator to the fern, hilariously played by Kevin Richard Bordi, is hooked up to the home’s AI. However, her husband David (Keith Baker), a cybercrime reporter, is excited when the fridge (played by Julianne Bradbury) gets hacked, starts a fire and, in a Shakespearean rant, shuffles off its refrigerated coil. The fridging of the fridge sends David on an epic AI home upgrade with some unexpected results.
The AI leads to some truly funny moments, but as with all good speculative fiction, the heart isn’t in the technology but in the people. Irene’s leeriness soon gives way to paranoia à la Charlotte Perkin’s Yellow Wallpaper. Mix in David’s singular career fixation, the fern’s sudden interest in emo poetry and a lonely gibbon named Atlas, and you have a bittersweet—but very human—mix of the sublimely absurd and the devastatingly accurate.
Special mention must be made of Jess Johnson’s sound design. Johnson might be the best sound designer in the county. Her work is showcased here with a design that delivers just the right emotional, aural jab needed to recenter the play when the script veers too close to the sentimental or silly.
As a world premiere, a lot could have gone wrong. But thanks to intelligent writing, sound acting and Spreckels’ first-class design team, all the circuits clicked into place to produce a show that, though a bit shouty at times, was nonetheless enjoyable. Audience members should not be surprised if they have the urge to unplug their Alexas when they get home.
“Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” runs through Aug. 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Friday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm; Thursday Aug. 25, 7:30pm. $12–$26. 707.588.3400. spreckelsonline.com