As theatrical career-enders go, critical performance assessments like "mechanical" and "robotic" rank right up there with "wooden" and "unconvincing." So how am I to do justice to actors Leanne Heintz and Katja Hill for their alternating comic and eerie takes on the same automaton, a repurposed child-care robot named Nan, in the current production of Henceforward... at Deep Dish Theater?
Under Paul Frellick's direction, both actors find some of the frissons we've seen in actor Michael Fassbender's chilly, viral YouTube videos associated with the upcoming Ridley Scott film Prometheus, as well as in a notable Chapel Hill high school production of Universal Robots we previewed on Artery, the Indy's arts blog, earlier this season.
Heintz, Hill and Frellick join playwright Alan Ayckbourn in speculating that, whatever other purposes androids will serve, they are likely to be our existential mirrors as well. In their highly engineered surfaces and actions, our positive and negative potentials will inevitably be reflected, if not magnified: our ethics and aspirations, our conflicts and fears.
In this futuristic though still somewhat pedestrian variant on a comic domestic theme, Jerome (Mark Filiaci) is a brooding cold fish of a composer with a bit of a Steve Reich sensibility; he synthesizes music out of conversations (and other human sounds) that he surreptitiously records in the various rooms of his London apartment. He's acquired his robot secondhand from a sad-sack neighbor named Lupus (an amusing Gregor McElvogue, who appears only in a video-based form of voice mail).
After an attempt falls through to hire an actor, Zoe (Hill), to play his putative fiancée, Jerome reprograms Nan in order to fool a child welfare official and his battle-axe ex-wife Corinna that all is bliss in his stark bachelor pad. His objective: regain visitation rights to Geain (prounounced "Jane"), his daughter and muse, whom he hasn't seen in four years. By the time of the all-important home visitation, Nan's been programmed to provide light, and evasive, cocktail-party chatter when she hears certain trigger words. But since she apparently saw and heard more than a few husband-and-wife fights at her former address, certain words begin to trigger digital-quality flashbacks as well: menacing dialogue, foreign voices and acts out of the past, reflecting anything but happiness at home. Call it an android version of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
As Nan, both Heintz and Hill are funny and unnerving as they depict compliant acquiescence, programming snafus and more intimidating emotional states with precision. They let us overlook, to some degree, the mechanical plot developments and shallow characterizations Ayckbourn provides his main human characters, before an unbelievably convenient denouement. Jon Karnofsky gets a full share of laughs as civil servant and human doormat Mervyn before Alex Anna arrives as a truly frightening character who must remain nameless.
Still, Henceforward... provides a useful primer for all the tomorrows to come: Before the ghosts in the machines were trapped in silicon, transistors and titanium, their former residence was entirely organic—in the human dark side.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The wired help."