Being somewhat of a geek and follower of posthuman hoopla, I get excited about all things Philip K. Dick. The literature, the fan culture, the absurd theories, the films, comic books—there is an entire industry based on the improbable life and works of Dick. One realm that has yet to be infiltrated by Dick Culture (and, I would argue, science fiction in general—but that’s another post for another day) is performance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: performance is always the last one to the party. Partly due to resources, partly due to an implicit conservative undercurrent, sci-fi/fantasy has gone largely unattempted in the theatre. The closest we’ve really come in recent years is Cynthia Hopkins’s The Success of Failure and the I’ll-reserve-my-adjective-till-all-facts-are-in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (which, I can say at the very least, has an incredibly silly title). It’s a shame, really, considering theatre has even created some forms of science fiction (see: Capek’s R.U.R.).
So imagine my delight when I discovered the Untitled Theater Company #61 was staging an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one of Dick’s more famous stories and basis for the classic film, Blade Runner. The layered, confusing, and hypermoral narrative takes place in the future when AI has become so advanced that special detectives and bounty hunters are employed to detect and “retire” rogue androids who are trying to pose as humans on Earth. (You see? You see? There’s a hazy difference!)
Untitled Theater sets up a fascinating stylization that combines the 50s obsession with futurity and morality (instructional films about proper behavior for men and women, as well as the famous “duck and cover” short play on pod-like film screens before the show begins—kudos to set designer Neal Wilkinson and video designer Jared Mezzocchi for their resourceful and evocative use of space and imagery). Open on our protagonist, Rick Deckard, hunched over a maimed sheep-android, seemingly mourning the loss of the pet he has destroyed: a striking image, which remains as the robot-body parts are left strewn about downstage as a reminder for the piece’s entirety, leaving an expectation of a system and story that is already broken.
The show’s main asset is director Edward Einhorn’s adaptation of the novel. As per most Dick novels, Do Androids Dream is a baroque and intentionally befuddling story. Any attempt to condense and communicate Dick’s intentions (for what those are worth) is a massive undertaking. If you don’t believe me, compare the novel with Blade Runner—there’s a reason beyond marketing that they had to alter the title. But Einhorn boils the novel down to a solid 90 minutes of live experience, and covers most of the thematic and narrative bases.
To continue what I found to be the fixation with 50s noir, Einhorn’s dialogue is spit out by almost every character with the sauciness and confidence of Rosalind Russell, a cadence that became grating quite quickly. While I appreciate the homage to an appropriate genre, the form overpowered the content, and the stylization became overbearing—I would have preferred that the company allow the deft text to speak for itself. For a text so focused on agency, free will, and the definition of “human,” the forced sensibility and physicality merely reminded me of how far robotics and AI must advance before Dick’s dystopian universe may be realized.