Review: The Singularity Play by Jackalope Theatre Reimagines a World Ruled by Artificial Intelligence

Review by Nena Martins.

Though the film world is no stranger to technological dystopias, it is rare to see a play take on the science fiction genre. Jackalope Theatre’s world premiere production of Jay Stull’s The Singularity Play does just that. This play within a play focuses on a group of actors rehearsing a show written by an artificial intelligence. Set in a world where neurosurgical enhancement (referred to as “wet ware”) is possible and allows humans to enter an alternative world (“in-world”) free of trauma, pain, and death, this production asks its audience to ponder what it means to be human, and what we stand to lose when we reject aspects of our humanity.

With rising anxieties around the role that artificial intelligence will play in our lives, it makes sense to use theater, an art form that so deeply relies on humanity, to explore questions around the growing presence of AI in the workforce. At the start of the show, a group of actors hired by Google, workshop a new play written by an artificial intelligence called Denise (played by Anelga Hajjar). The room is divided regarding their feelings towards the so-called playwright. Alice (played by Lucy Carapetyan) leads the charge against Denise, while Henry (Madison Hill) and Heidi (Ashley Neal) quickly start to fall in love with some of the new pages. Meanwhile, Jason (played with heart by Kroydell Galima) goes as far as opening up about his own grief and finding comfort in Denise’s disembodied presence. Throughout the show, by bearing witness to moments of humanity, Denise herself begins to gain a higher level of consciousness and longing for more of the human experience.

L-R, Lucy Carapetyan, Madison Hill, Christina Gorman, Ashley Neal and Kroydell Galima. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.

The play excels in the moments where the discussion around AI goes beyond the technology and enters more existential grounds. An argument between Royal (Lucy Carapetyan) and Jules (Ashley Neil) rings particularly true. Jules grows angry at Royal’s preference for the “in-world” and apparent disrespect for their humanness. Royal makes a strong case for a world without grief. Jules’ anger grows into a heated argument, and we watch their “wet ware” begin to malfunction, preventing them from fully embracing their frustration: a visual representation of how a world devoid of negative emotion would be stifling. The overhead lighting (a purposeful and intelligent choice by the lighting designer Eric Watkins), which makes the space look clean and sterile for the most part, flickers and strobes to accompany the changing tone and aid the transitions, allowing for some visually stunning moments.

Like most works in the genre, a good amount of world building is necessary to get the audience up to speed, which causes certain scenes to feel somewhat weighed down. However, the director (Georgette Verdin) does a great job of keeping the pace up, aided by the masterful cast. The play, with a run time of about 90 minutes, goes by fast. The only downside is that at times, information is lost and the audience is left trying to piece together the events.

At some points, the play lingers too long in intellectual arguments, missing out on the action, at the risk of turning into one long debate. But with that, the more emotional scenes, such as the final act, where Dawn (played masterfully byJennifer Jelsema) reunites with an old friend, really shine. These moments are the beating heart of the play and help remind us that arguments aren’t always won through logic.

L-R, Madison Hill, Christina Gorman and Kroydell Galima. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.

It is not difficult to draw comparisons between the world we live in now and the world of this play. The “in-world,” where humans are allowed to escape to and build a dreamier version of their lives, bears incredible resemblance to social media, for instance.

This show certainly challenges its audience to evaluate their relationship to technology and how we have or haven’t relinquished freedom and control.

The question of whether a world ruled by AI is positive or negative remains somewhat unanswered. Who wouldn’t sign up for a world rid of grief and loss? One where we could start over and reimagine constructs such as gender (which ceases to exist as we know in the play’s reality) that have caused so much oppression within our current world? However, just as Denise inexplicably searches for her own humanity, I couldn’t help but feel incredible grief in response to the idea that one day, we could lose it.

The Singularity Play by Jackalope Theatre continues through June 22 at the Berger Park Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan Rd. in Edgewater. Tickets are $15-$35 with discounts for students and Edgewater residents for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission.  

Nena Martins (she/ her) is a Chicago-based Portuguese actor and writer. She is a recent theater graduate from Northwestern University, ready to embark on her next adventure to University of Southern California, where she is getting a master’s degree in dramatic writing.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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