Deborah Yarchun Explores Threats & Benefits of AI
by Patricia L. Morin
“Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” delivers a blend of tense and comedic moments in an AI world gone rogue. A young techie couple spotlights the clash between their sophisticated cyber-apartment and basic human feelings.
The stunning modern set by Designer Andrew Patton includes a stainless-steel kitchen I lust after, and a colorful Scandinavian living room. The play opens with Irene (vivacious Taylor Diffenderfer) on Reddit, and her message is instantly typed on the side wall. She shares her husband’s infatuation with a soft, stuffed turtle—but not with her.
Irene’s husband, cyber journalist David (talented Keith Baker) investigates cybercrimes, but lives in fear of losing his posh job to AI. He is obsessed and needs more sensational AI stories, so strange things start popping up at their ultra-modern apartment when Irene is alone.
Irene gets locked in, pulling at the door to escape, but David opens it easily. Things are getting spooky.
Irene works as a writer for an AI publishing company. Demoted, she edits articles written by AIs. We quickly feel her isolation and loneliness as the household electronics torment her, relentlessly. Voiced by dynamic Julianne Bradbury and versatile Kevin Bordi, the lights flicker; the refrigerator, named Frederick, complains aloud; and an angry fern, demanding more water yells, “Fuck you, bitch!”
Baker and Bradbury shine in their dual roles
Later, the refrigerator screams for help, moaning as it dies. It explodes as they panic. The cyber antics shake us up, and make us laugh. David rushes to write it all down for his next article. But inquisitive Irene is confused and frightened: She demands to know what is happening.
Irene turns to her virtual reality headset for solace. Reading about Atlas, the loneliest gibbon, from one of her AI stories, she visits Atlas. A jungle video splashes on wall and energetic Keith Baker materializes as Atlas. He jumps on her counter and yells out to us. Atlas is both scary and delightful—a breath of fresh Nature in their cold AI universe.
Irene empathizes with the monkey. Briefly, the gibbon becomes the powerful focus of the play. I yearned to hear more about Atlas, as we become involved in his plight to find a caring mate to abate his (and her) loneliness.
When his potential mate arrives (adroit Julianne Bradbury), we are transported to a primordial world of basic needs and pairing. In that environment, Irene can escape the fearful cyber world and feel safe—a world that many long for today.
When David hangs a pair of “Cyber Arms” on the wall, Irene becomes wary. The arms take on a life of their own and fold curious, lonely Irene into them.
Director Sheri Lee Miller expertly orchestrates the multi-faceted actors in their complex roles, along with sophisticated moving parts.
Yarchun artfully matches the Gibbon’s cries with Irene’s suffering and suppression. We must suspend our disbelief at times, and question some of the logic. Yet Yarchun reminds us that we have yet to control either the AI world or our emotions. “Atlas” suggests many questions we have yet to face.
“Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” by Deborah Yarchun, directed by Sheri Lee Miller, set design by Andrew Patton, lighting design by Eddy Hansen, projections design by Peter Crompton, sound design & projections operator Jess Johnson, at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park, California. Info: SpreckelsTheatre.com – to August 28, 2022.
Cast: Keith Baker, Kevin Bordi, Julianne Bradbury, and Taylor Diffenderfer.
Banner photo: Taylor Diffenderfer & Keith Baker. Photos by Jeff Thomas