It may be one of the strongest images in our collective pop culture consciousness: Frankenstein’s monster rising from the operating table – the product of a young man playing god now set to wreak havoc on the world.
The ‘creation scene’ in Emily Perkins’s The Made happens not at the beginning but roughly the halfway point. Scientist Alice (Alison Bruce)’s personal and professional life are on the rocks: her work on artificial intelligence has been rejected for funding, her ex-husband David (Peter Daube) shows no signs of wanting to reconcile and her adult child Sam (Murdoch Keane) has dropped out of university to pursue drug dealing – all in the wake of the death of her difficult mother. For a moment, Alice finds reassurance in Nanny Ann (Brownyn Bradley), the outdated robot she made to look after Sam while they were growing up. That is, until she springs up off of her lap, eyes alight with the realisation — “You are not my mother, you are my creature!”
Cue a thrilling, loud and visually spectacular sequence in which Alice resurrects Nanny Ann and goes beyond anything she’s done with AI before. Colin McColl’s direction and Eden Mulholland’s inventive sound design alongside Rachel Marlowe and Brad Gledhill’s bold lighting make this play out like a mad scientist’s fever dream. But while Alice and Nanny Ann are the initial focus, our attention is pulled to Alice’s first creation in the background.
This is hapless Arie (Hannah Tasker-Poland), manipulated by the company that had just purchased the rights to her. A former sexbot Alice reworked in her zeal to create empathetic AI, Arie can so far only ‘feel’ happy. We are told that she cannot feel love because for that she would need to understand the world. There is the central question: how to fill her with more than simply happiness, and should we? In Arie’s naive state, Alice is reluctant to present her to a public that would only use and abuse her. She tells assistant John (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) that it is their responsibility to treat her well because how they treat her is who they are.
Tasker-Poland, who doubles as the show’s movement director, is hypnotically convincing as Arie, emphasising her halting gestures and speech while investing her with sweetness and (albeit unwitting) sass. I missed her presence in the latter half of the play and almost wished we could have seen more of her journey and relationship with creator Alice, who loves her while recognising she’s an “appliance”.
Yet Perkins has a keen awareness of pace and establishes character and relationships swiftly and effectively, as does the cast. Bruce is superb from scene one, portraying Alice’s arc over the course of the show with humour and emotion. Throughout The Made, Alice is the target of criticism from just about everyone. Thankfully, the show delves into her flaws instead of portraying her as either a one-note villain (leaning into the stereotype of ambitious, intelligent women being emotionless) or a simple victim (recalling ‘empowerment’ narratives in which the female protagonist is made dull due to always being right). Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we the audience are meant to agree with some of those critiques, such as John’s complaints that Alice just treated him like another device when the opening scenes suggest a genuine friendship between the two. Though performed well by Dekkers-Reihana, John’s storyline feels less essential than others.
At its heart, The Made is about Alice and Sam. Despite growing up around AI, Sam finds magnificence not in machines but the complex neural networks of mycelium. Sam’s passion leads Alice to incorporate such networks into her own work, resulting in an updated Nanny Ann, played with scene-stealing energy by Bradley. Nanny Ann’s brashness and agency couldn’t make her more different from pliant, perpetually cheerful Arie (“What are you for?” she fires back when a human character asks what her function is).
It feels right that some of the show’s final scenes focus on the dynamics between Alice, Sam and Nanny Ann — and not inside Alice’s laboratory but outside in nature. Scenographer Dr Dorita Hannah and set design assistant Shan Yu’s elaborate design shines throughout, and here they create an almost Edenic scene unfolding before a foliage-rimmed window. It’s a striking contrast from the metal screens and industrial greys that made up the set before, as Alice gains a ‘window’ into what might really matter in life. Sharp, hilarious and thought-provoking, The Made is a terrific theatre experience with themes that will only grow more relevant as artificial intelligence becomes more prominent in our lives.
The Made plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 20 September to 8 October, 2022.