Remember last week, when I asked for Blogtown volunteers to go see and review a workshop production of Hand2Mouth Theatre's The Uncanny Valley? Well, regular commenters Graham and Two Squatting Women took up the challenge—and both came through with solidly written and generally positive reviews of the piece, which gets its official premiere next year. Their writeups—in which Graham is "surprisingly touched" by a musical number—are after the jump, lightly copy-edited, indiscriminately bolded, and otherwise unmolested.
Two Squatting Women:
Of Holding Hands and Red Bouquets
Seconds into Hand2Mouth Theatre’s Uncanny Valley, the actors briefly introduce themselves then invite the audience along on an exploratory mission into the unknown cracks of their minds in search of “hot zones” of memory, places where access to the familiar becomes palpable. These memory explorations—conducted in true sci-fi fashion, replete with white lab coats (“torso suits”), decontamination chambers, and transfer portals—originate from a ground control office where the actors return and gather from their journeys. Cast members rotate as mission control officer for others in the crew, guiding them across the stage, and giving occasional progress report asides to the audience (“We’ve made unprecedented contact!”).
Much of the thematic content of the play stems from Proust and other philosophers who’ve mused on fear of the unknown; the anxiety elicited from memories we want to both vividly remember and repress into oblivion. Freud’s essay entitled “The Uncanny,” an analysis of our deep dread of the unknown, looms large in Uncanny Valley along with (surprise!) notions that many of our fears are rooted in repressed childhood memories.
The seven-member cast is very strong, playing loose and naturalistic (practically playing themselves, it seemed) with the more straightforward narrative of the first half of the play. The more visually dynamic second half transitions quickly into an unstable blend of Freudian trips down childhood memory lane (the cast all seem to have early memories of weather patterns), dance, stage fog, precipitation, unitards, writhing sirens, bliss, emotional trauma, hissy fits, seizures, revelations, physical scars and a total abandonment of the strict scientific method to which the group aimed to adhere. The broken fourth wall engages the audience, injecting the play with moments of levity and steering it away from the more alienating, inward-gazing traits often ascribed to experimental theater. That doesn’t mean this play is easy. There are no simple story lines or big, Broadway smiles screaming “Love me, please!” But the material, while challenging, doesn’t ever really leave you asking “What the fuck?”
My assessments could be all wrong but I liked the bigger questions Uncanny Valley seems to ask about whether the desire to truly inhabit our memories is worth the excitement and frustration. Do these quests stifle our lives and prevent us from living or do they aid in personal growth? And are they real or merely subjective figments? My one complaint about Uncanny Valley is technical—much of ground control’s character interaction and general bustle gets lost being staged so far away from the audience. At times, it’s the far more interesting visual target than what’s happening on the floor.
Uncanny Valley by Hand2Mouth has two different productions occurring at the same time. The first play is a relatively straight-forward sci-fi story about the hubris of man trying to understand the internal workings of the mind and to explore in that arena; the second play is surrealistic look at memories, how they work, and what people remember. The first play causes the second to spring into existence, and the second play causes a surprisingly touching (if confusingly placed) musical number to close out the play.
Attempting to describe this play as "experimental" is difficult when the central conceit of the play is that it is literally an experiment. The actors explain very carefully that they will be engaging in a scientific endeavor into some sort of nebulous memory-field-thingie that was referred to as "The Zone." The actors did a good job of setting the stage for their "experiment" with a rather dry Mission Control systems check of all their various communications gear and recording apparatus. They then began to do some sort of walkabouts the memory-field-thingie. Their experiment went about as well as you'd expect from a group of theater people trying to recreate Flatliners but with an existentialist foray into memory instead of the the afterlife, which is to say that they quickly cocked it all up.
It is necessary to point out that the dramatic tension of the play was disturbed during the action-climax due to a medical emergency in the audience. The production staff did a great job of handling the problem and letting the audience know that everything was all right afterwards.
Uncanny Valley made extraordinary use of their sound effects and lighting, with a conceit that this aspect of the production is itself its own character by having the person running the soundboard in full view of the audience and in matching costume with the rest of the actors (a white Hazmat suit). While the lighting and sound were a useful addition to the play, Hand2Mouth had a rather heavy hand with their use of that fake smoke/smog/fog stuff. Fake smoke to me will always smell like haunted houses and mediocre raves, a smell that took me out of the experience.
The website for Hand2Mouth describes this play as being a "work-in-progress showing" and that they would be going through several more cycles of staging the play and re-working it to improve
whatever they could. With this as their starting point, things look good and I would definitely return to the next showing in the fall tosee where they've taken things.