Techno-dystopia: a review of Bustle & Beast’s Girl in the Machine

Indie theatre company Bustle & Beast takes a deep dive into dystopian fiction, à la Black Mirror, in Girl in the Machine – now playing at the Zeidler Dome in the TELUS World of Science Centre.

Actually, the script – written by Scottish playwright Stef Smith – feels like a mashup of a few episodes of Black Mirror. Fans of the show, or of science fiction in general (your reviewer is one), will be able to pick out a lot of familiar tropes and scenarios at play.

The story follows a 30-something couple, workaholic corporate lawyer Polly (Beth Graham) and down-to-earth nurse Owen (Mike Tan). In an attempt to get his high-strung partner to relax, Owen gives Polly a “Black Box” – a headset that scans the user’s brain and presents them with tranquil images and sensations. Polly gets hooked, along with millions of other people around the world, and the story becomes a commentary on technological addiction, the surveillance state, mortality and the mind-body connection/disconnection.

This is a play that could be staged anywhere – it debuted in 2017 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Choosing to stage it in the Zeidler Dome, with its newly-minted 10K resolution projection, suggests that the show would make use of this sophisticated technology. And it does – barely.

Despite the script’s premise of human-technology interaction, this production doesn’t capitalize on the venue’s technological possibilities. The story is compelling enough, and both Graham and Tan deliver convincing performances. But the show’s very sparing use of the Dome’s projection technology seems like a missed opportunity.

The first time Polly dons the Black Box headset, a reverberating bass drop accompanies a mesmerizing 3-D projection across the theatre’s dome. I felt a thrill run through me and leaned back in my reclining seat to better see the images splayed across the ceiling. “This is going to be great!” I thought. Then the projections disappear – and they don’t come back for quite some time.

 

Mike Tan and Beth Graham in Girl in the Machine. Photo By Marc Chalifoux.

 

There’s a fine balance that must be struck whenever a show employs technology like this: use too much of it and there’s no point in having live actors on stage; it may as well be a movie. Use too few, and there’s no point in staging it in this specific venue. Girl in the Machine trends towards the latter. I expected to be dazzled by projections throughout the show, even if they were merely background images instead of the central focus. Instead, the show gives only tantalizing little snippets of what this venue can do.

The climax makes the most use of projections, and they were a marvel to behold. But by this point, the performance had begun to feel a bit wearisome.

 

Mike Tan in Girl in the Machine. Photo by Marc Chalifoux.

 

Sound is absolutely swallowed in this space, and unless the performers were directly facing you, their voices disappeared into echoes. It was kind of a cool effect, and director Brenley Charkow was cognizant of this; she has the performers moving around the stage to minimize sound disruptions.  

Be aware that there are some seats in the theatre with almost no sight lines to the stage. Avoid these. They’d be fine for watching a show projected on the ceiling, but they’re terrible for a show that takes place predominantly on the small, slightly raised stage directly in front of you. Also, don’t sit on the cushions on the floor. They might look cozy at first, but I can only imagine how uncomfortable you’d be by the end of the show.

Girl in the Machine is an interesting foray into immersive theatre. It doesn’t fully capitalize on the available technology in the Zeidler Dome, but it does deliver a convincing – albeit very bleak – commentary on where our culture seems to be going: heads down, smartphones in hand.

 

Girl in the Machine
By Stef Smith
Bustle & Beast Theatre Co.
Zeidler Dome at the TELUS World of Science Centre
Until Sunday, March 8


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