Such is the brain-teasing, emotionally charged premise of The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. A technology-powered think piece with proto-steampunk underpinnings, the 2013 play by Madeleine George is now in full fantastic sprawl across the stage at PURE Theatre in a provocative new production directed by Cristy Landis.
You remember Watson, the reliably affable sidekick of Sherlock Holmes — and narrator of that venerated Victorian detective series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the devoted service of his partner sleuth, Watson was forever at the ready to lend his measured head to Holmes’ brilliant ratiocinations. You might also recall a more recent, yet equally reliable Watson, the IBM supercomputer that in 2011 famously beat the champions on Jeopardy!, thus putting a bit of artificially engineered egg on the face of the whole human race.
These two analytically endowed Watsons, and other Watsons still, power the inter-spliced stories in this work that casts a curious eye on the role and capabilities of manmade machines and technologies. Through parallel narratives that each features three characters, we get ample intel to consider whether a bundle of wires and network connections can minister to those who feel sad, lost, confused or helpless — and effectively sift through the dense mess that is the human psyche.
As the show opens, we meet Eliza (Camille Lowman), a techno whiz well underway in coding her invention, Watson (Scott Pattison-Smith), a beta-version robotic device of uncanny emotional facility. When completed, Watson will not only avail of its ability to access data to help humans navigate the many logistics of the modern world; it is also programmed to utter that perfect phrase to produce emotional comfort in a specific person.
However, things get murky for Eliza when her ex-husband Merrick (Laurens Wilson), enlists a Dweeb Team technician by the name of, yes, Watson to sort his failed computer. Feeling an immediate trust in Watson, Merrick ends up also securing his services to trail his estranged wife. Their lives become entangled when Eliza and Watson consequently connect, all while she nears completion on her invention.
We then meet another Eliza (Lowman plays all characters by the name Eliza, as all actors play the characters of the same name). Victorian Eliza has appeared at the office of Sherlock Holmes, with the hopes of deciphering some odd occurrences connected to her husband, Merrick. Dr. Watson takes on the case, which entails crossing paths with Eliza’s husband, Merrick, an industrial inventor with some deeply disturbing plans regarding his wife and some devices.
Constructing these concurrent, thematically conjoined plots is precision structural work, and the playwright is able, if a bit belabored, in doing so. The reliable ensemble maintains the momentum across scenes and centuries. Lowman’s Eliza the coder is a raw tangle of emotions and withdrawals, equally convincing when she is needy and distant, while Pattison-Smith elegantly shifts (and time travels) from one distinct Watson to the next. Throughout the play, each new Watson is granted special access to the other characters, who view him as trustworthy, and Pattison-Smith delivers this accessibility — and likability — to conjure up both a heartbroken techie as a legendarily game investigative cohort.
PURE’s production, which takes place on a large set in a suitably Victorian mauve tone with period embellishment, more than succeeds in putting forth much to mull. There’s rich material here, whether you want to chew on our increasingly engineered lives — or gain new insight into just how we got here in the first place. The work also serves up illuminating bits of technological history, like Bell’s invention of the telephone and the lore surrounding it (including, naturally, another Watson), all to illustrate how our data-driven world can sometimes conspire to authenticate falsehoods — and even flat out reject truths that run afoul of them.
After all, man and machine have been strange bedfellows since the 19th century. As we dream up devices to replace our own functions, we come dangerously closer to outsourcing those human behaviors that also keep us going, among them the primal desire to need and to be needed. In short, an object enlisted to provide individual emotional comfort could be just the thing for replacing ourselves out of existence.
Whatever your conclusions after seeing this considered, compelling piece of contemporary theater, you’re likely to concur that the notion of our emotions mollified and manipulated by a computer is more than a bit unnerving. Siri? Alexa? Please tell me a funny joke.