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Daphne Howland

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Posted: June 3, 2015

Theater Review: ‘The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence’ with Dramatic Repertory Co.

Written by: Daphne Howland
Christopher Holt and Janice O’Rourke in “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” by playwright Madeleine George.

Christopher Holt and Janice O’Rourke in “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” by playwright Madeleine George.

Theoretical physicists will tell you that advances in quantum gravity mean that time travel could really happen. But it’s already been made possible in the fast-paced production of “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” staged now through June 7 by Dramatic Repertory Company at Portland Stage’s Studio Theater.

The play uses an elaborate concept: happenings in 1876, 1891, 1931, and 2011, each tied to its own cutting edge – phone communications, industrial designs, computers. We jump from now to then, from here to there, and back. Technology changes, couture changes, even men and women change. But humans? Maybe not so much.

The black-box Studio Theater is steam-punked out with a delightful set design by Meg A. Anderson. And thanks to careful attention to costume by Joan Mather, the actors make all the switcheroo rather believable. James Noel Hoban as Merrick, Christopher Holt as Watson, and Janice O’Rourke as Eliza (their names stay the same, although their characters decidedly don’t) impressively take on much more than the accents of the shifting places and times.

Hoban switches from varying brands of arrogance and even fiendishness. His face at times takes on the stern alertness of the American bald eagle; in more absurd moments, the Muppet version. O’Rourke’s Elizas are rooted in their times. It’s lovely to see her go from being a woman bound by convention in one time, and at loose ends, despite her hard-won power, in another.

And, Watson. In this play Holt is Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s Watson, IBM’s Watson, and another, just everyday Watson. While modern-day engineers have long worked on making robots seem more human, Holt, in an especially difficult task, manages to give his computer-Watson an endearing humanity, while also making it quite clear that he’s a digital being dependent on 21st-century Eliza’s programming.

Playwright Madeleine George – Dramatic Rep has made the effort to present all plays by women this season – asks a lot of the actors, with a fast pace that often means abrupt changes in character, scene and props. Here it’s as smooth or as sudden as it needs to be, and the result is certain magic.

But George may be asking a bit too much. The play, which has been compared to Tom Stoppard’s work, unravels as it heads to its conclusion. Her shift from a few compelling, somewhat overlapping stories that depend on style, pace and humor to a deeper, more human story is, unlike Stoppard’s, undisciplined. That leaves her characters to talk too much, and to somehow be both too obvious and too confusing.

It’s a shame, considering that the director and his actors do such a good job keeping things straight during all the topsy-turvy.

There’s not much that director Keith Powell Beyland or his capable actors can do about that, and, indeed, they do their best. We live in a moment of seeking how to maintain connections in a wireless world, and that’s what this play is getting at. It doesn’t come close to any answer, but there’s a lot of fun in Dramatic Rep’s attempt.

WHAT: Dramatic Repertory Company’s “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence”
REVIEWED: May 30; continues through June 7
WHERE: Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
INFO: dramaticrep.org, (800) 838-3006

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