Arts

Review: Road Theatre’s ‘High Maintenance’ Deftly Uses A.I. to Ask Questions About Humanity

(L-R) Christian Prentice and Ivy Khan in the world premiere of "High Maintenance" at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

Artificial Intelligence and its ramifications, especially within creative spaces, has never been more topical. As such, the Road Theatre Company’s world premiere of High Maintenance has engagingly, comically, and poignantly tapped into a likely near future where “do no harm” A.I., represented by robot actors, or “thesbots,” takes center stage. Ultimately, could a programmed machine, appearing to be lifelike, process and respond to “prompts” as naturally and fluidly as humans do — particularly in the realm of acting where nuanced emotions are highlighted?

High Maintenance, which will play in repertory at the Road Theatre with another play of the same ultramodern genre, Singularities or the Computers of Venus, is cleverly written by Peter Ritt and directed with an artistic flair by Stan Zimmerman. From the outset, High Maintenance keeps observers guessing about the direction it’s going to take and the messages it will ponder about the encroachment, or enrichment, of big tech in theatre, as well as the ensuing questions it can pose for the automated entities themselves.

(L-R) Ivy Khan, Kris Frost, and Christian Prentice in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

The premise, a veritable play within a play, examines how Roger, a thesbot championed by his creator, Alan Steele — the head of Capstone Technologies’ Robotics Division — will mesh with Hollywood diva, Laura Miller. The two will inhabit the husband-and-wife lead roles of Torvald and Nora in a staging of A Doll’s House at an acclaimed regional theatre in Chicago. Miller, a sci-fi TV star who has become a pariah in her profession for an outburst gone wrong, is motivated to redeem herself by syncing with Roger who previously starred in a Lifetime Christmas film and is now earmarked to revolutionize the theatre scene forever.

Setting the stage is set designer Brian Graves who utilizes large grey vertical pieces to capture a sense of the unknown and a future that is already here. In combination with Ben Rock’s A.I.-generated projections, Derrick McDaniel’s exotically hued lighting, David B. Marling’s techno-pop percussive sound design, Scottie Nevil’s comfortingly identifiable props (e.g., a makeup station), as well as Jenna Bergstraesser’s casual and stark costumes, today is summarily interlocked with the legend of tomorrow.

(L-R) Ivy Khan and Merrick McCartha in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

Christian Prentice adroitly portrays the amiable thesbot, Roger, who can imitate a human almost perfectly, and even pose, on command, like he’s on the red carpet. In addition, his ego mushrooms not unlike many actors; however, the moment an improvisational curveball is thrown at him, like it is by Ivy Khan’s Laura Miller, his mind and body threaten to malfunction. For as much as Prentice’s Roger is continually learning, he has difficulty conceiving of abstract areas within fixed markers of black or white.

Prentice is endearing and funny with how he manifests abrupt expressions and alters his gait, undulating like a coil, to communicate his well-meaning android who can’t quite differentiate between literal versus figurative language and capture “mixed emotions” like a person, or seasoned actor in the spotlight, would. Choices can simply be only right or wrong for Roger who yearns to have accessible, emotionally laced memories and the ability to react spontaneously; this, consequently, elicits a heartfelt sympathy for the pluggable and arguably anxiety-provoking invention.

(L-R) Ivy Khan, Alexis Ingram, and Merrick McCartha in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

Khan imbues Miller with precisely the complex emotions that her character aims to bring out of her co-starring thesbot. On one hand, Miller epitomizes the experienced actress with a scandalous reputation longer than her filmography, but, on the other hand, she ironically rediscovers her humanity through a non-human figure. In her pursuit to bring the best out of Roger, she spends more time with him, to the chagrin of her confidant-assistant Gus, or “person,” depicted with sassy charm by Merrick McCartha, who is alarmed by this development and feels Laura is squandering her time. The results are nonetheless magical, during rehearsal or otherwise for Miller, largely due to how urgently present Khan’s performance is in persuading Prentice’s reactions and the audience’s compassion about a struggling, bipedal computer comprised of inorganic materials.

(L-R) Merrick McCartha, Ivy Khan, and Amy Tolsky in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

Kris Frost, who resembles a cross between Tom Cruise and Dennis Quaid, makes for a highly entertaining and hilarious Alan Steele who is bullish about his thesbot breakthrough, so much so that he’ll pump his fists with overflowing enthusiasm and, with excited impulsivity, shuffle his legs as he misreads as many social cues as his robots do. Still, Steele is impossible to dislike as an entrepreneur who just wants to finally be taken seriously by the entertainment industry.

Similar to Frost’s endearing performance, Amy Tolsky renders Vera Osborne, the artistic director of A Doll’s House, with an infectious exuberance as she passionately imparts direction from all corners of the auditorium. Tolsky, who recently garnered well-deserved praise for her layered turn in The Manor, signifies a behind-the-scenes player who realizes that accepting robotics, as opposed to rejecting them, is the only way to ensure theatre “survives the new generation.”

(L-R) Christian Prentice and Tommy Dickie in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

Furthermore, Alexis Ingram industriously plays Samm, the resourceful and whistle-blowing stage manager of A Doll’s House, who avails herself to the beck and call of any requests and can even be found juggling more than one job so she can afford braces and pay off her student loans.

Last, but not least, Tommy Dickie is Thesbot Prime, an android upgrade, who figures into what seems at first to be a twist climax but is one that makes absolute sense upon reflection. Dickie’s versatility in giving his Prime a spectrum of feelings — from removed to invested — underscores comparisons between planned obsolescence and humanistically natural, but no less cruel, ends.

(L-R) Ivy Khan and Tommy Dickie in the world premiere of High Maintenance at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Peggy McCartha

After 90 minutes of High Maintenance, one may have a reconditioned opinion about A.I. Perhaps the concept, and its application, isn’t unilaterally harmful, after all. Maybe there is something to be gained from adapting to the digital and practical advancements that will envelop us with or without our consent. To the extent that Roger has trouble expanding on a “model” of reality previously assimilated, humans might benefit from leading by example to increase our own “storage capacity” to be more tolerant. Because once a robot, or thesbot, becomes fully self-aware, as a function of full-fledged consciousness, its hard drive-stowed memory becomes humanized, transcending the manufactured parts that were hitherto treated impersonally. At that point, the question of what it means to be human inevitably becomes blurred. For now, let’s relish in how much more diverse a cast can be with thesbots added to it!

The Road Theatre Company’s world premiere of High Maintenance runs through Sunday, May 19th. For further details and tickets, visit roadtheatre.org.

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