First Look presents a fine look at the future (or is it now?) with THE A.I. AT DELPHI.  

THE BASICS:  THE A.I. AT DELPHI, a new play by Bella Poynton, directed by Jeffrey Coyle, presented by First Look Buffalo, starring: Melinda Capeles, Lisa Ludwig, Jon May, and Anthony J. Grande. 4/26 – 5/19,  Fri – Sat 8:00, Sun 2:00, (Extra matinee Saturday, May 4th at 2:00) at Canterbury Woods Performing Arts Center 705 Renaissance Drive Williamsville, NY 14221 (716) 771-6358

RUNTIME: 1 Hour 40 Minutes with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  From the playwright: “Iz is an A.I., invented by the intelligence engineer Pythia, her ‘mother.’  As the director of Delphi, the world’s leading technology company, Pythia has given Iz access to the world and its knowledge, allowing her to develop as a thinking and feeling entity with personhood.  Now, Iz has decided she deserves the same rights and privileges as other human beings, including the right to work, vote, hold public office, and marry.  While Pythia believes this is simply the next step in Iz’s evolution and our journey towards transhumanism, the politician Anthros disagrees, suggesting that Iz’s limitless reach brings us closer to human obsolescence.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  THE A.I. AT DELPHI runs at the Canterbury performance space concurrently with another play also about artificial intelligence, THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WATSON INTELLIGENCE, now at Road Less Traveled Productions downtown.  So two plays about this hot topic at the same time?  But wait, there’s more. 

As we just learned, D’Youville University students are upset this April that an A.I. Robot named Sophia, a “social humanoid robot” developed by Hanson Robotics will deliver their commencement speech on May 11.  Sophia previously made some news in 2017 when (she? I’m not sure of the pronouns here) was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming the first robot to receive legal personhood in any country.

L-R Lisa Ludwig as Pythia the creator, Jon May as Anthros, her nemesis | Photo credit Tomas Waz

So in this current play by Bella Poynton, “Iz” is not as far into the future as you may think.  

Writing about sentient machines interacting with humans isn’t new, but it usually results in a “machines are evil” view.  I’m sure you have your own examples.  Some of mine include the 1870 ballet “Coppellia,” where Dr. Coppelius invents a doll that steals the affections of a local boy from his intended bride.  In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1935 dystopian poem “Nightmare Number Three” machines revolt against humans.  And, of course, there’s HAL, the evil computer who kills most of the crew (except Dave) in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  And “Ash,” the android in the movie “Alien,” had been pre-programmed to bring the Alien back and to consider the crew expendable. 

But what about “good” robots?  That certainly feels more contemporary in art and in “real life.”  The idea of robot companions for the elderly in nursing homes (one of the intended occupations of the very real Sophia), robot bellhops in hotels (we have one already in Buffalo), and robot-assisted surgeries in hospitals have all become accepted.  Not to mention ChatGPT to help us write (not this review, however) and the convenience of asking Alexa or Siri to simplify our lives, trading privacy for convenience.  So it seems that humans have turned a corner in their thinking to where “transhumanism” might not be 100% a bad thing.  

L-R Anthony J. Grande as Calos the techie, Melinda Capeles as IZ, the A.I. | Photo credit Tomas Waz

It’s been said that there are only two extraterrestrial science-fiction plots.  Either “we go there” as in Star Trek or “they come here” as in “ET.”  In terms of transhumanism, there are only two ways to go.  Either humans become more like machines (with prosthetics or artificial organs) or machines become more like humans (with “artificial intelligence”).  A credit card commercial asks “What’s in YOUR wallet?”  This play asks “What’s in YOUR future?”

Bella Poynton loves her Greek references, and in the title of this play, she’s referring to the Oracle at Delphi which predicted the future for the ancient Greeks.  Perhaps the most famous prediction was that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother.  That play aligned with the ancient Greek belief that our futures were fixed and unchangeable.  Is it our future for robots to someday rule over humans?  Is that fixed?  There are four major drivers in that question: The A.I. creators, the A.I. cautious naysayers, the public who will benefit, and the A.I. itself/herself.

L-R Melinda Capeles as IZ argues for her rights with Jon May as Anthros | Photo credit Tomas Waz

And that’s what Poynton’s THE A.I. AT DELPHI gives us.  In this well-thought-out and engaging play, we hear from all sides.  The A.I. itself/herself is called “IZ” (say “is”); her creator is Pythia (Lisa Ludwig) whom IZ calls mother; the cautious naysayer is Anthros (Jon May) who enjoys political power and sees IZ as a personal as well as an existential threat; and the “public” is the technician Calos (Anthony J. Grande) who is in love with IZ.  

We learn that early on, IZ had used her considerable brain power to help defeat an unnamed enemy but now has been locked away in a remote location, and IZ, who is chronologically a teenager, and now, as teens often are, she’s bored.  She wants more.  She wants to vote, which means that she wants to become a citizen, which means that she must be recognized as a person.  Given that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, that’s not such a stretch.

Of course, this is also an unspoken nod to the women’s suffrage movement, where the idea of women voting caused tremendous uproar and backlash.  

Director Jeffrey Coyle’s casting is spot-on for this production, with Lisa Ludwig as the sure-of-herself scientist able to stand up to Jon May’s Anthros.  May brings a dramatic arc to his character beginning as a smug, self-assured head honcho who slowly loses his grip.  Grande, as the technician Calos, is the exact opposite of Anthros,  bringing the laid-back vibe of most I.T. guys that I’ve known.  And Melinda Capeles, a trained acrobat and exquisite mime, uses all her prodigious talents to become a believable humanoid.  Even though “she” (IZ) might be considered an “it,” you want to shout, “You Go, Girl!”

Producer and Sound Designer Kaylie Horowitz is a master of audio and SFX. Together with Set Designer Sarah Waechter, Lighting Designer David Guagliano, and Projection Designer Seth Tyler Black, they made excellent use of Canterbury’s rather large stage. I was completely taken into their world. 

It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Buffalo to the Canterbury Woods campus. The entrance on Renaissance Drive is off Youngs Road. After entering the property, take the first left. The large white Performing Arts Center is immediately visible, with parking to the left.  First Look Buffalo is committing to new, local plays and should be applauded for giving THE A.I. AT DELPHI a fine outing. 

Lead image: L-R Jon May as Anthros argues with Lisa Ludwig as Pythia the creator of IZ | Photo credit Tomas Waz

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

The post First Look presents a fine look at the future (or is it now?) with THE A.I. AT DELPHI.   appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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