Review: `’Bot’

Opened March 10, 2007 at the Magic Theatre

Magic’s Hot House ’07 ends in a robotic muddle
1 [1/2] stars Mechanical

Well, one out of three’s not too bad. Actually, it’s not so good.

The Magic Theatre’s Hot House festival of new plays unveiled the third and final world-premiere play Saturday, which gives us a scorecard: one really interesting show, one muddled, somewhat interesting show and one complete snoozer.

To recap: the best of the fest is Chantal Bilodeau’s Pleasure & Pain, the S&M, awakening sexuality drama; the middling show is Kirsten Greenidge’s race satire Rust; and the one I wish I could have avoided was Saturday’s ’Bot, a blown fuse of a play with something interesting in it somewhere, but that something is buried beneath a truly painful script by C. Michele Kaplan.

Just looking at the overly busy set – created by Robert Broadfoot with the help of the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance – makes you uneasy about what lies in store. Clearly meant to indicate some high level of technological know-how, the surfaces are sheet metal silver and black. If the idea is that we’re inside a computer, the reality is that we’re trapped in the movie Tron.

Then, when the first scene, involving a man and a woman undressing each other and making out, comments on itself in a supposedly clever way, the heart sinks. It’s got to get better from here. But it doesn’t.

With the help of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Initiative, this Magic production, which is supposed to turn science and technology into compelling drama, collapses under the weight of an overburdened plot riddled with scientific mumbo-jumbo that leads us nowhere.

Director Chris Smith, also the Magic’s artistic director, has cast some excellent actors, but neither he nor the performers can make Kaplan’s script work. Her dialogue is full of exposition, which means that characters constantly – and numbingly — tell each other things they already know strictly for our benefit.

The story we care about involves teenager Charlie (the excellent, grounded Jonathan Rosen, pictured above), a genius who has shut himself in his room, where he has created something he calls “machine intelligence.’’

He calls his creation CharlieBot, and its form is a computer-animated head that resembles Rosen. We see CharlieBot — created by Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center – on three different screens, and we see Charlie live from a corner of the stage that resembles a techno-boy’s messy bedroom and on a giant screen as he records a video diary.

Charlie’s quest to transform “our consciousness into code’’ is pretty interesting, but his story is overwhelmed by superfluous plot tangents involving his workaholic lawyer father (Steve Irish) and his affair with a co-worker (Karen Aldridge); attempts by his mother (Julia Brothers, pictured below) to save the world through a legal aide foundation she created; and a newly divorced South African writer (Dan Hiatt) attempting a fling with a documentary filmmaker (Juliet Tanner).

Why the writer and the filmmaker are even in the play is a mystery, and it’s a testament to the mediocrity of Kaplan’s script that capable actors like Hiatt and Tanner are utterly at a loss.

Brothers fares better as Janey, Charlie’s mom, if only because she infuses some real-life emotion into this melodramatic world. Credit must also be given to Irish and Aldridge for surviving the gratuitous nudity of their post-coital scene with dignity intact.

And do you want to know what’s not interesting onstage? People on laptop computers. At one point in this 90-minute (feels longer) show, there are four people on their computers, and boy, talk about dead space.

Somewhere in Kaplan’s multi-pronged plot about the plight of Africa, the profiteering of the U.S., the prevalence of antidepressants and the tragedy of neglectful parenting is the kernel of an idea about artificial intelligence and post-human existence.

Now there’s an intriguing idea. What we get with ’Bot, unfortunately, is a whole lot of scenes that short circuit before they can connect with either a coherent plot or the audience.

For information about ’Bot, visit

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