Saturday, October 6, 2018

ELIZA'S Adventures in the Uncanny Valley review: Some eccentricities in this absurd drama don't seem well scripted

A group of androids struggle with feelings of irrelevance in Eugene O'Brien and Gavin Quinn's new play. Photo: Ros Kavanagh 

Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Dates: Oct 4-7

★ ★ ★

Contemporary theatre, much like the uncanny valley, is a likely place for new displays of human emotion. That’s a particularly interesting licence for Eugene O’Brien and Gavin Quinn’s play for Pan Pan, where a group of androids living multiple lives still struggle with irrelevance. Could this be an unnervingly familiar portrayal of insignificance?

Here, a motel room has subtle shades of an asylum in Aed√≠n Cosgrove’s superb design, sheltering its inhabitants from humanity. In arrives Eliza, a robotic flower consultant searching for self-improvement. Reminiscent of the identity-warping experiments of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, she’s made heartsick by Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as a figure disconnected from the world. 

As Eliza’s peers cry out for attention (Dylan Tighe and Amy Molloy), with one remaining stoic and quoting T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (Andrew Bennett), this seems like a group session overseen by a therapist (Jane McGrath). Pan Pan has put its characters through counselling a few times before but some of the eccentricities in this absurd play don’t seem well scripted.

That’s not to say some moments aren’t original and affecting. At one point, Eliza recalls her father’s death while singing in a weird vibrato, just before a delicate recreation of that tragedy challenges her perspective. Grief and guilt are seen restaged in new ways.

But it’s hard to know what’s gained from random experiments such as a mood-lightening gag with a banana-peel or a late contest to prove who’s most believably human. Characters pile on their delusions and insecurities, views on sex and God, but they rarely lead anywhere explosive.

As Eliza feels her mind slip, leading to a manic finale in Katherine O’Malley’s movement direction, the play powers down with the solemnity of a tragedy. But something’s gotten loss in the programming. 

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