Thursday, November 18, 2010

Android Dreams

OK, just in case you've been on Mars for the last few decades ...

Blade Runner (a movie by Ridley Scott) was an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a book by Philip K. Dick). Saying Scott "adapted" the book is a polite way of putting it. It's kind of like saying you adapted the Bible and made Satan the hero. Scott's movie turned Dick's core concept on its head. (More on that in another post.) Short version: Dick's "androids" were heartless, soulless bastards; Scott's "replicants" were sympathetic slaves fighting to be free.

Now that's out of the way, here's the point: Playwright Edward Einhorn has adapted Dick's novel for the stage -- as in really adapted it. His play is a fresh take that forgets Scott's movie ever existed. (Such was the promise.) Up in NYC, an entity called Untitled Theater Company #61 (UTC61) is producing Einhorn's play at the 3LD performance space. Einhorn is also the director. By an improbable chain of events and the personal sacrifice of Su Byron, I caught the opening night.

First, here's my take on Einhorn's take on Dick's book. As promised, Einhorn's version is much closer to the novel, though he does some retooling of his own. No big thing. The book is a subversive black comedy. The play is, too. It's a book of ideas. Einhorn keeps most of those. Most importantly, he keeps the book's heart: Empathy.

That's right, kids! Einhorn returns to Dick's obsession with empathy as the defining human characteristic. Specifically -- in the context of the original novel's fictional universe -- empathy is a stubborn decision to care for others when not caring is the most logical survival response. In Dick's scenario, Earth is hell. It's a rotten, post-apocalyptic world full of radioactive dust and "kipple." (Dick's private word for random junk.) The humans who qualify are deserting the planet like rats off a sinking ship. The humans who remain stuck (because they don't qualify or can't afford escape) find salvation in a religion called Mercerism. (Devotees enter a virtual reality box and experience the martyr's pain). Stranded humans can also take comfort in owning animals. Most of the real ones are extinct, so most people buy robot beasts. (Electric sheep, etc.) Real animals are expensive status symbols. Androids are too -- but they're a perk reserved for colonists on Mars and illegal on Earth. When they escape to Earth, bounty hunters kill them. That's Deckard's job -- and he's torn up with moral conflict about it. As in the movie, he's forced to confront what it means to be human.

Einhorn's adaptation does justice to Dick's brilliantly dense source material -- without any force-fed exposition. His dialogue sounds like actual people (or androids) talking. His scene construction is good, too. What's happening, what's at stake and where the action is going are all crystal clear. (As they aren't in the novel. No disrespect. Scene-setting wasn't Dick's thing -- any more than it was Joyce's.) 

Scott's movie modified Dick's ideas, then blasted them into the cosmos (or greater LA) like an exploded bolt diagram. Dick's original book was much more inward -- claustrophobic, gnomic and hermeneutic -- an exercise in ratmaze philosophy. This production distilled that nightmare into a dense, multimedia stew, complete with vid screens, an opera singer and a dude playing electric cello. The play's mood remains the same: a really lousy mood, with a tiny drop of hope that's probably bullshit. All credit where credit is due: Dick's complicated and possibly crazy ideas may be depressing, but this production makes them easy to follow. That's not easy to pull off.

Einhorn gets some of the credit, but not all. Henry Akona created the haunting, original operatic score. Neal Wilkinson's set design neatly evokes an entropic world full of decaying consumer junk. Kudos also to the actors, who include Alex Emanuel (Rick Deckard), Yvonne Roen (Rachael Rosen/Pris) vocalist Moira Stone (Luba Luft), Christian Pederson (Roy Baty), Ken Simon (Isidore) and neo-vaudeville performer Trav SD (Buster Friendly). Excellent work all around -- a total investment in their characters. They brought Dick's waking nightmare to life -- and brought me to tears several times.

I loved the book and loved the play -- to the extent you can love a bizarre allegory of suffering and redemption based on the private religion of exactly one believer. Am I entirely happy? Eh ... no. I wish Einhorn had stuck closer to Dick's harsh vision. The playwright couldn't resist making the "andys" sympathetic and dropping broad hints that Deckard himself was an android. Cool ideas from the movie. They ain't in the book -- and they blunt the point of Dick's twisted gnostic parable. 

OK, OK. Aside from my objections as a Philip K. Dick fundamentalist, yeah, I dug this play. Einhorn twisted a few elements around, but left most of the plot and characters intact. The mood of the source material remains. It's gutsy and honest -- if unrelentingly bleak. The play keeps the promise most plays break. It takes you to another world. Hey, it's a lousy world -- what'd you expect? You want laughs, see Pee Wee Herman. You want irony ...

The taxi that took us to the play skirted the open wound of the World Trade Center. Couldn't help but think of Dick's propecy of a ruined world.

An as an added jolt of PhilDickian irony, technology threatened to sabotage the opening night multimedia production. The waiting audience wound up cooling its heels for about 45 minutes after the theoretical opening time. Various nervous actors (voices cracking with stress) came out to explain that the show had a snag. One of the vid screens wouldn't work; then they all died. Eventually, they got most of 'em working -- and the show went on.

Tech hasn't enslaved us, yet. But we haven't mastered it either.

Somewhere up in heaven (or perhaps VALIS) I think I can hear Phil laughing.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
A UTC #61 production
Through Dec. 11
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich St., New York, N.Y.
Untitled Theater

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