Monday, April 30, 2012


Not every brain-boosting scientific experiment has to go awry (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Lawnmower Man), but where's the drama in smooth sailing? August Schulenburg's a smart playwright, so he more or less opens his new science-fiction play, Deinde, with Professor Daniel Nemerov (Matthew Trumbull, charmingly awkward) establishing the four rules for proper use of "Deinde," an experimental neural interface designed to exponentially increase the brain's processing power, rules that are literally designed to be broken. In doing so, Schulenburg removes the pressure of having to focus on action, and instead gives himself the wiggle room he wants to meditate on the deeper question that accompanies talk of Singularity-type events: if we change the way we think, will we still be human? If we can change the future or the past, will anything we do in the present even matter?

On one end of the debate is the aging quantum physicist Malcolm Forner (Ken Glickfeld), who strongly believes in the importance of carefully applied wisdom as opposed to the brashness of raw intelligence; when his supervisor, Nabanita Ghosh (Nitya Vidyasagar), introduces the Deinde project, he willfully refuses to participate. On the other are the energetic young'uns, Jenni (Rachael Hip-Flores) and Mac (Isaiah Tanenbaum), who can't wait to "get smart." Meanwhile, stuck between the two is the moral analyst, Cooper (David Ian Lee): he sees the value of linking in -- in this near-future setting, a virus threatens to wipe out humanity, and superior number-crunching may be the only thing that can save his wife, Dara (Alyssa Simon) -- and yet he also sees the danger of acting rashly: that's what's kept him from consummating his flirtations with Nabanita.

As staged by Heather Cohn, these three paths are occurring simultaneously, and each carries its own side-effects, though none as dangerous as the transformations firing through Mac's synapses. Tanenbaum chillingly grows more and more alien, beginning with his rapid-fire computations and overlapping conclusions, continuing with his frustrations at the "tar-brained Fudds" who are unable to keep up with or understand his six-dimensional logic, and culminating with a full-on, musically inspired psychotic break: "I was gonna kill you, man," he says, forcing his frightened best friend and bandmate, Bobby (Matthew Murumba), to laugh along with him. Hip-Flores's transformation is gentler, as befits her character's personality, and therefore perhaps even creepier, as she turns away from her artistic girlfriend, Mindy (Sol Marina Crespo), her mind being overwritten by Mac's more communal (and carnal) desires, to the point that the two speak as one. (There's some deft comedy here, too, in their attempts to hide their linked minds from their co-workers.)

At its best, Deinde is thought-provoking and disconcertingly plausible, with Schulenburg poetically describing bosons and infinity. Unlike "Deinde" itself, however, the show is far from streamlined, with Schulenburg's tendencies to overwrite monologues or to re-stress key points (Glickfeld handles his repetitious warnings with real grace) sometimes putting the "try" in that poetry. Moreover, given how fascinating the central premise is, some of Schulenburg's sub-plots -- Dara's new lust for life, Nabanita's odd attraction to Cooper -- feel underwhelming: they don't have the gravity to fight the play's more natural narrative arc. (For an example, watch the touching "holly" scene in which Malcolm attempts to win Nabanita over to his non-computer-assisted logic.)   At the same time, however, they're never overly distracting; this is much like the props and costumes, which, while clearly from our time, still manage to signify the future. (Will Lowry's scenic design -- formula-filled chalkboards and crisp glass monitors, suspended in mid-air -- is a bit more successful, as they're never touched and therefore never smudged.)

Ultimately, Deinde succeeds as speculative theater by fully questioning the implications of a technological advance and dramatizing one possible result -- a result, mind you, that may be all the more insidious given the lack of malice present in its "villains." Would it have benefited from some cuts and a more uniform ensemble? Sure. The better question, however, is whether or not you will benefit from seeing this production: the answer to that, especially if you're new to Flux Theatre Ensemble, is yes. Come see how far an Off-Off-Broadway show can take you.

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