Monday, November 22, 2010

On-Stage: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

They enthusiastically call themselves “Dick-Heads.” They are fans of the postmodernist science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and they certainly appreciate irony. No doubt, they will also flock to the Untitled Theater Company’s new stage adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, now officially open at the 3LD Art and Technology Center in Lower Manhattan.

Director Edward Einhorn’s adaptation is much more faithful than any cut of the movie Blade Runner, also loosely based on Dick’s original source novel. Though undeniably a classic, Ridley Scott’s film seems to have a different ending every few years. Still, Einhorn also takes his own liberties, at times to emphasize gender differences in the brave new world of the future.

The so-called World War Terminus left most of the Earth radioactive. Nearly every species of animal is extinct, but lifelike replicants are available for those who can afford them. Unfortunately, bounty hunter Rick Deckard just killed his electric sheep. That is what he does. He tracks down and terminates renegade humanoid androids as a freelancer for the local police. Deckard has become disturbingly good at it.

There are several methods for determining if a suspect is human or an “andy,” but Deckard prefers the Voight-Kampff test, designed to measure a suspect’s ability to feel empathy. However, Deckard’s ruthlessness towards the synthetics is starting to raise questions about his own capacity for empathy. He also finds himself increasingly attracted to an android, Rachel Rosen, the spokesperson on Earth for the Mars-based Rosen Corporation and the ostensive daughter of the company’s founder. Three of Rosen’s most advanced androids have gone rogue, perhaps including Rosen herself, or an identical model.

Neal Wilkinson’s sets eschew the slick cyberpunk look of Scott’s film, deliberately evoking a 1950’s sense of the future, with grainy monitors and low tech devices that even pre-date the 1968 publication of Dick’s novel. It is effective world-building though, creating the atmosphere of a crummy dystopia, but not one so oppressively regulated by Big Brother that Deckard’s services would not be required.

If anything, Sheep might be too stylized. For those going into the theater with only a long past viewing of Blade Runner under their belts, it takes a few beats to catch up with some of the gizmos and lingo. Yet, the play’s thorough deconstruction of “Mercerism,” a strange ideology of empathy and resurrection that seems to offer a glimmer of optimism, renders the world of Sheep a rather soulless, materialistic place. Indeed, the bizarre visions of Mercer in the “empathy boxes” appear to serve as stand-ins for religion writ large, all of which, we are duly lead to believe, are false.

Sheep’s cast often find themselves in challenging positions, frequently zonked out on mood enhancers, half-fried by radiation, or otherwise existing in some explicitly inhuman state. They largely sell it, even when that requires them to sink into the backdrop rather than rise to the fore. However, Alex Emmanuel is quite compelling as Deckard, progressively agitated as the humanity of everyone around him (and even his own) is called into question.

Sheep is at its best when asking the philosophical questions the Untitled Company specializes in. Specifically, the replicants directly challenge the notion of “empathy” as a higher virtue. If one is just imagining one’s self in another’s position, is it not simply a projection of selfishness? Unfortunately, Sheep does not have a good corresponding answer, leaving audiences only the hope of survival in a nihilistic world. It is a meaty production, but ultimately also a cold one, yet Dick loyalists should definitely appreciate its literate ambition. Now official open, it runs through December 10th at the 3LD Art and Technology Center.