THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE
Director – Emily Scott Banks
Set Design – Jim Covault
Costume Design – Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe
Lighting Design – Michael O'Brien
Sound Design – Rich Frohlich
Projection Design – Nate Davis
Props/Set Decor – Lynn Lovett
Production Stage Manager – Jim Covault
Allison Pistorius – Eliza
Aaron Roberts – Merrick
Garret Storms – Watson
Reviewed Performance: 2/21/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Second fiddles are prevalent in history. Dr. John Watson was second to Sherlock Holmes but, of course, both were conjured by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Second fiddle has its challenges even among the literary elite.
There are other great Watsons in history. Thomas J. Watson, Sr. and Jr., were the first two Presidents of IBM, perhaps second fiddle to the great company itself. But out of respect for Sr., IBM named their artificial intelligence engine “Watson.” That Big Blue computer struggled to vault from second fiddle to champion of Jeopardy in 2011.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence was written by Madeleine George and is playing its regional premier at Stage West Theatre. This comedy juxtaposes the stories of Watsons across time and place to tell a story of love and loss in the 21st century. And, tipping my hand early, I loved it.
Emily Scott Banks directed this play with designers who created a memorable setting for this story. Jim Covault’s set looked a bit like the inside of a computer with walls, in blue of course, having lines of vertical steel pipe look like wiring on a motherboard. The floor, save for a big white spot, was painted with motherboard etchings. A large projection screen hung almost mid-stage but behind the tight playing area and a few pieces of furniture, representing different places and time periods of 1876, 1891, 1931, and 2011, moved in and out for various scenes with ease.
The set was rather uniquely lit by Michael O’Brien with hues of blue, orange and a few whites, the wash representing “computer” colors, though it also created a sense of melancholy and mystery. They subtly made everything glow a bit eerily without being cheesy. Props and set decorations were meticulously chosen by Lynn Lovett to represent common items from the different time periods, including a modern desktop and laptop, books and clutter on the floor, the first Bell phone, and a a contraption that could be both a 19th century medical device and an instrument of torture. Nate Davis developed a projection show that revealed time clues, through coloring and contrast values, and also images of American and English towns, as well as a computer upgrade screen that acted like a subtle timekeeper at times. Rich Frohlich used recognizable sound effects, such as telephone ringers from different eras, to help identify time and place, each eliciting iconic memories to those who lived through those times.
Director Banks also created a most interesting scene change system. I began to look forward to them. Actors moved set pieces into position in the character of either the current scene or the next scene, with a subtle darkening and a slow color change by O’Brien to the new scene. To this, Davis added a projection to draw attention towards each new time and place, while Frohlich introduced music clips from groups like Portland Cello Project and Takenobu, each creating an auditory atmosphere to set the new scene. Within all this, actors interacted silently in character with each other while moving furniture, though they might be from different eras or locations. Like a time shift in which characters traveled through a tunnel connecting for a moment with a brief look, a silent passing or a short pause, each change added a little piece of the story.
Costumes were uncomplicated yet extraordinary in their detail. Michael Robinson’s design selected clothing for each character in each time period they played, but also enhanced them with little iconic pieces, a hat or shawl, something that created a unique image for that person. From 19th century woolen plaids and tweeds to a Victorian floor-length deep red silk dress to modern-day casuals and suits and the Dweeb Team “uniform,” costumes were warm and visually satisfying.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence was told by three actors. In all, they created, I believe, ten characters. Each actor found a piece of individuality for their characters - a physical tic, a body posture, a slight accent or phrase timing, a small costume piece - which identified them as a different personality.
Allison Pistorius played a “different” Eliza and so a new character in two historical periods, as well as a TV interviewer and a barmaid. With costume and props, Pistorius gave each Eliza their own bit of pathos and confusion as they struggled with issues of their time. Each little copy represented a woman asking life questions in her own way. Pistorius’ facial expressions of surprise or despair, exaltation or bewilderment, fit each character naturally but also uniquely. Through her face and subtle eye movements and little nuanced vocal changes in wording, we saw her struggle with the meaning of her relationships.
Aaron Roberts played Merrick, husband to Eliza, in two periods. It was his words which echoed those words in question, “Watson, come here.” Inventor, politician, mad scientist, each was menacing, angry, paranoiac, and raging against the establishment and accepted beliefs. But his textual delivery and physical exasperation revealed beliefs and feelings that made his characters vulnerable, even a bit likeable as they plotted distasteful things. Roberts used his costumes to set his character’s style, often changing from one to another during a piece of monologue. He switched effortlessly between American and British accents. His characters were the most confusing to identify, because they were written so similarly to each other, but Roberts’ accent and costume changes, along with the context of his text in each time period created the difference we needed to distinguish who he was with believability.
Garrett Storms played Watson in all his forms across the ages. Whether as Eliza’s robot Watson in 2011, Josh Watson, the ostensible spy watching Eliza, Thomas J. Watson of Bell fame, or Dr. John Watson as Sherlock’s sidekick, his characters were detailed, quirky and lovable, and Storms made each physically unique. As Eliza’s erstwhile robot project, he used stilted, forward facing, vocally robotic actions, but every now and then a sly subtle smile belied a bit of humanity. As young computer geek Josh, Storms played him naïve and awkward, a bit like those geek qualities we’ve come to love on The Big Bang Theory. His Dr. Watson was a smooth, confident, intelligent type managing any situation, even without the great Sherlock to help him. The British accent, the 1800’s costume with wonderful sleuth hat, the way Storms reshaped his long hair, how he pronounced his phrases most carefully and precisely all made him the famous doctor. And when Storms dropped into Alexander Bell’s Watson, he stepped into a physicality that changed his persona drastically. His vocal patterns were unique to the character, maybe to any character ever. They were delightfully engaging in every sense. Through all his character differentiation, Storms showed a wide range of emotional qualities from blank slate to confused indifference to despair, from forceful assertiveness to fear. There seemed to be a certain innocence in all his Watson copies and he was able to ask the uncomfortable questions with no pretense or agenda. This was hilarious.
The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence is a piece that could have become confusing and eccentric. But with masterful direction, great production design and careful acting choices, the constant time shifts were not only easy to discern, but provided impetus to the time themes of the author. We are connected through time, even as the program noted, “simultaneously.” This suggests the popular idea of many worlds and parallel universes. However, as Director Banks wrote, “…the modern smart phone addiction has perhaps created quite the opposite [effect].” Is there too much disassociated communications now? There are other themes which are more universal. “What does it mean to be alive, to be human?” These are themes in which even Shakespeare struggled. In the end, it’s about love and loss, both uniquely human qualities. And Banks concluded, “…if it is our fate to be bound up with each other, as messy and inelegant as that might be, perhaps we should in fact cherish the very things that make us uncomfortable….”
Stage West Theatre brought this quirky, funny and thought-provoking play to our region and this is the first of several production choices that went right. A plethora of creative decisions by Director Banks and their execution by cast and crew tell a wonderful story in which we can all relate. Do not miss it!
Stage West Theatre
821/823 W Vickery Blvd.
Fort Worth, Texas 76104
Plays through March 22nd
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm
Ticket prices are $30.00 Thursday and Sunday, and $34.00 Friday-Saturday.
Discounts are available for seniors, military, students, and under 30’s. KERA members and press receive half off a full price ticket on Thursday or Sunday, and $28.00 Friday-Saturday.
Prix Fixe Fridays – Every Friday after the first Friday of any show, $42.00 per person buys dinner (gratuity included) and the show. Price does not include alcoholic beverages or appetizers.
For information and tickets, visit www.stagewest.org or call their box office at 817-784-9378.