[Sidebar] January 13 - 20, 2000
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The soul of silicon

Judy pulls some amusing strings

by Bill Rodriguez

JUDY, OR WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A PUPPET?. By Tom Sgouros. At Perishable Theatre through January 16.

[Tom and Judy] In all the recent millennial soothsaying about the gee-whiz technology in store for the century, prospects for artificial intelli gence have been among the most intriguing and the most spooky. The entire Mayo Clinic as your doctor, a virtual Sorbonne as your French instructor? Or how about a Silicon Revolution for real, with HAL as their Ethan Allen? Well, Tom Sgouros's latest one-man exploration at Perishable Theatre, Judy, Or What Is It Like to Be a Puppet?, has fun humanizing the question.

If you built a robot smart enough to do the dishes, it asks, would it also be smart enough to find the job boring?

Judy has a lot more personality than you might expect from an armless jaw-flapping, head-canting Erector Set assemblage of pneumatic tubes and pulleys and aluminum struts. With voice and high-energy provided by Marilyn Dubois, Judy is as much fun as a barrel of wind-up cymbal-monkeys, and lots more entertaining. When we first hear from her, she's belting out a rousing rendition of "John Henry," about that steel-driving railroad track layer who raced a machine to his death; and we wonder whether she has noticed the irony, since her creator has just sat down to play a game of chess.

We see "baby pictures" of her when first assembled, and other slide projections of her adolescence, before she balked at washing windows and scrubbing toilets. We witness her alarm at learning that she is sometimes turned off for days at a time, so we wonder at the equivalence of consciousness and existence. We get some deft sleight of hand from Sgouros, an accomplished circus performer, and plenty slight of mind.

The central question under discussion is how much such an ostensibly self-aware creation can be considered alive, in that endlessly examined debate of science fiction writers and their androids. Is it as simple as Cogito ergo sum, or would a super-computer Descartes only think he thinks? Judy and Tom raise a sweat sparring about free will. Tom tells her she's programmed to play chess, but as far as she knows she's being spontaneous with every move. When Tom insists that people can choose to do whatever they want, Judy sarcastically brings up those hoards of office workers spilling out of subways to jobs, programmed by their mortgages.

Sgouros has written and performed seven monologues and other solo shows over the past 10 years, and this may be his most amiable venture yet. In prior performances, he has looked into the persistence and fallibility of memory like a whimsical Marcel Proust, and has fantasized interviewing the inventor of the lawn flamingo with the odd-ball curiosity of a John Waters. Now Sgouros unwinds his latest squirrelly rumination with an amiable aplomb that comes across as especially spontaneous, like an improvised conversation rather than a scripted one.

By the time we come to the surprising and mischievous conclusion, we have not so much heard a story or seen a play as eavesdroped on a 50-minute conversation. At times it rambles and backtracks like a freshman dorm gab-fest or the journal entries of a pre-teen B.F. Skinner. What does flesh and blood have to do about being sentient? Are you no less programmed by the IRS than your Turbo-Tax spreadsheet? The exchanges don't as much answer questions about the nature of consciousness and self-identity as bring up questions for discussion.

Now and then the performance stalls, rambles, repeats itself or declares when it needs to demonstrate -- such as when Tom refuses to believe that Judy has made a joke (which would be evidence of self-awareness) but soon accepts that with no further evidence. At times Judy is unsure of where it wants to go, whether it's about illuminating the mystery of consciousness or just being an entertaining shaggy dog story lifting a leg to unanswerable and pretentious Big Questions.

But, after all, this is no formal lecture by Noam Chomsky -- or even Tom Stoppard. It's meant to be fun, mainly, and at that this two-voice monologue succeeds by eliciting many a chortle and the occasional knee-slap. Its informal subtitle is "My Dinner With Android," and as such it gives us plenty to chew on.

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