The expression “There’s nothing new under the sun” goes back to the Bible, and it’s a notion that applies to theater. Eternal themes such as boy meets girl were dramatized long before Renaissance-era Verona’s Romeo wooed Juliet at Elizabethan England’s Globe Theatre. Audiences in Sophocles’ and Aristophanes’ Greece were enthralled by family conflicts staged in antiquity’s amphitheaters.
Michael Golamco, however, attempts to make the age-old appear fresh, instead of trite, by placing a tried-and-true storyline in an unusual setting with uncommon characters. The playwright points out that his latest play, Build, which is having its premiere tonight at the Geffen Playhouse, “is essentially Pygmalion“ — but with high-tech twists and turns that the ancient Greeks and George Bernard Shaw could not have foreseen.
In 2005 the Philippines-born Golamco took Cyrano de Bergerac for a ride around the block, giving Edmond Rostand’s 1897 chestnut about the French suitor with the über-schnoz an unexpected Asian spin in Cowboys Versus Samurai, which opened in New York and ran in San Diego, Hong Kong and Canada.
His Year Zero depicts familial discord, as well as romantic tensions. But instead of being set, say, in Tennessee Williams’ South, its dramatis personae are primarily contemporary Cambodians living in Long Beach — a community rarely, if ever, presented on the boards in America. Year Zero premiered in Chicago in 2009, ran in New York in 2010 and had its West Coast debut in 2011 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.
With Build, Golamco takes us inside another California community, Silicon Valley — a quirky realm with even more offbeat characters. Just as Golamco drew on his Asian roots to write and research Year Zero, he tapped into his tech background growing up in the Bay Area, where his family moved by way of Canada when he was 10, to build Build.
The now Westwood-based dramatist calls Silicon Valley “amazing. Literally billions and billions of dollars have been generated by that tiny little area, and a global revolution in technology has come out of that area. Silicon Valley — San Jose, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, those are the engines that have been driving the 21st century,” while also providing a milieu planted in fertile soil for playwrights to plow.
Build has a futuristic, sci-fi vibe. Back in the day, Kip (2009 Tony Award nominee Thomas Sadoski, co-star of HBO’s The Newsroom) and Will (Peter Katona, who was in Misalliance and A Feminine Ending at South Coast Repertory) were longtime friends who invented a video game, Ape Attack, which started them down the road to wealth and fame in gaming circles. But as corporatization encroaches upon the entrepreneurial nerds, they discover, among other things, that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Profit-driven Will has sold out to the suits and pressures Kip — who procrastinates more than Hamlet — to complete programming and designing a new video game called Maelstrom 2, which, but of course, has a fortune riding on it. Kip is a high-tech talent who has all the mood swings and angst often associated with eccentric temperamental artistes. Suffering from sleep disorders of Lady Macbeth-like proportions, the pill-popping Kip claims he never dreams — although Allison, an even more singular character, contends that she does.
What’s so extraordinary about this assertion is that Allison is an Artificial Intelligence creation. “The idea of dreams, and what we dream about, is a big part of the play,” says Golamco. “Kip possibly dreams, then forgets it. But that’s an even stronger part of his psyche, the fact that he forgets it or forces himself to forget it. His insomnia comes from his inability to dream and wanting to escape,” as Kip strives to suppress memories of his deceased wife, also named Allison.
In Build, the she/it A.I. was conjured up by the haunted Kip after losing his actual wife. Both female characters are played by Laura Heisler (who portrayed the linguist’s assistant in The Language Archive at South Coast Repertory) in a double role. Kubrick-ian complications ensue at the reclusive Kip’s Palo Alto lair, where peace of mind eludes him as he hides from the real world — and invents a virtual one.
“Build is a Pygmalion for the 21st century, about guys that make video games,” Golamco says in an interview conducted at the Geffen during a two-week preview period made possible by an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award. “And it’s about the creative power of technology, and what it can do and how it can mimic life. So, I wanted to do a story about that — guys who are so good at creating things, like an Artificial Intelligence or a piece of technological art, that it begins to fool them. And they get obsessed with their work and what they can build, and they begin to ignore what’s in the real world.”
The name “Allison” contains the initials that stand for Artificial Intelligence — “A” and “I.” “The same actress has to play both characters, and I thought it would keep things simple and alliterative,” says Golamco, who is reluctant to reveal how Heisler appears onstage in her twin roles as the late flesh-and-blood wife and her cyberspace counterpart. “I don’t want to say too much about that, but there’s definitely a distinct difference between how the A.I. is played and how Allison is played. There’s a bit of a [stage] effect, but I would say it’s mostly Laura’s acting that really sets the two apart. But you’ll see how they come together; they kind of dovetail together,” in the drama directed by Will Frears, who previously directed the Off-Broadway version of Year Zero.
Stressing the importance of originality, Golamco notes that in Build, “The A.I. is quite humane and quite different…Now that we’ve been through the rehearsal process, wherever there’s been a moment where we said, ‘okay, we’ve seen this before,’ we’ve done something different. We’ve gone to a different choice, because we want something that is different from how we’ve seen A.I.s behave in Hollywood and what our perception is of an A.I. and what the world is in the play.”
A.I. has figured prominently in science-fiction literature, such as in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s I Sing the Body Electric. The former was adapted into a 2004 film starring Will Smith; the latter became the basis for an episode of the Twilight Zone CBS-TV anthology series that aired from 1959-1964 and as a 1982 made-for-television movie titled The Electric Grandmother. Arguably the most infamous example of A.I. on the big screen is HAL, the sinister computerized self in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he and Arthur C. Clarke adapted from Clarke’s 1948 story The Sentinel. Before his death in 1999 Kubrick had been developing A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which Steven Spielberg made in, appropriately, 2001, and which was inspired by British author Brian Aldiss’ short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.
George Orwell’s 1984 is a chilling novel about a futuristic totalitarian state wherein Big Brother and his thought police watch the population through the screens of omnipresent television sets and other nefarious methods. Similarly, Allison is able to observe humans from her computer screen perch. Asked to comment on the fact that today’s private citizens, not just the government, can use electronic equipment to spy on individuals in our surveillance society, Golamco quips: “They’re ‘Little Brothers’ — I think that privacy is going to be the most valuable thing that a human being can purchase in the future.”
Golamco’s rumination on technology in Build not only ponders whether A.I.s have consciousness, but also if they possess unconsciousness. “I’m sure there are other plays out there about video games, but it’s a new subject for all of us and something that is definitely part of our world now and that we have to deal with,” asserts Golamco.
Indeed, Golamco is not the only live theater artist to notice this — Jeff Lewonczyk wrote Theater of the Arcade, a collection of short plays dramatizing five iconic video games, presented during the 2010 Game Play festival at Brooklyn’s Brick Theater. LA playwright Jennifer Haley’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom is about a group of teenagers obsessed with an online horror video game in which the setting matches their own neighborhood; since its 2008 debut at the Humana Festival of Actors Theatre of Louisville, it has received 17 productions, including a staging at LA’s Sacred Fools Theater in 2010.
An avid gamer himself, Golamco goes on to say, “I love video games; I play a lot. I have an Xbox and a PS3. I’m an old hand at this stuff. I’m in my 30s and I play video games!” Golamco bursts out laughing. “There’s nothing wrong with that though; it’s a part of our culture. I grew up with video games and they’re a real legitimate art form, and they’re a real method of storytelling that can be powerful and that is still evolving. Incredibly popular,” is how Golamco describes the multi-billion dollar business that’s now one of the entertainment industry’s most profitable sectors.
Golamco has referred to video games in his scripts before Build. In Year Zero Vuthy enthusiastically plays a game suggested by Dungeons and Dragons, which enables the Cambodian teenager to subconsciously sublimate and work through the mass murder perpetrated by Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s killing fields.
Build contains insider allusions: Kip briefly mentions a programmer “with the Zelda tattoos,” which, Golamco explains, refers to “Legends of Zelda, the Nintendo game, which is a reference to Zelda Fitzgerald,” novelist F. Scott’s wife, who purportedly went mad. Golamco adds that Maelstrom, the game Will and Kip are trying to add all the bells and whistles to, was suggested by World of Warcraft.
Golamco has much on his artistic plate. “I’m doing lots of TV work now. I sold a pilot and am producing another pilot for a TV studio. Both are hour-long dramas about technology. I’ve got two commissions going right now — one for South Coast Rep and one for [New York’s] Second Stage. So they both have drafts right now, but I’m rewriting them because I don’t want to turn things in until they’re ready,” Golamco states.
Asked about the difference in writing for the little screen and the stage, Golamco laughs and says, “I like writing for TV. I like writing in general. And it’s all really literally like there’s a fuel tank and you plug different nozzles into the tank. You know what I mean? They’re just different mediums of writing. But it’s all just good storytelling.”
From Greek tragedy to geek dramedy, plays to PlayStation, the stage continues to evolve, finding new modes of expression for humanity’s eternal obsessions. And in Build’s brave new drama, Michael Golamco — a writer whose intelligence is anything but artificial — may be pointing toward a new path for 21st century theater.
Build, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles 90024. Opens tonight. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm.Through Nov. 18. Tickets: $69-74. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
***All Build production photos by Michael Lamont