It’s 2050, and an unnamed virus that’s already killed thousands has the human race cornered unless a “dream team” of scientists allow a supercomputer called DEINDE to enhance and store their problem-solving skills in the hopes of working out a usable vaccine. Playwright August Schulenberg easily convinces us of the stakes of his science-fiction drama Deinde and then takes us (with just a few hiccups) through a disturbingly convincing reality where humans, as they do, abuse this power.
Schulenberg’s ensemble of talented actors are aided by strong source material that establishes the scientists’ complex web of relationships from the get-go, from platonic and romantic affection to an age difference that underscores the entire story.
You could get lost in deciphering the nuance of every relationship, from the sibling rivalry of prodigies Jenni (Rachael Hip-Flores) and Mac (Isaiah Tanenbaum) to the emotional underpinnings of sober director Nabanita’s (Nitya Vidyasagar) very different relationships to grandfatherly Malcolm (Ken Glickfield) and Cooper (David Ian Lee), whose wife is rapidly wasting away from the virus. Although we know next to nothing about the virus — unless you read up on the worldbuilding materials on Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Facebook page — we never question that each of the scientists has a stake in finding a cure.
You’re still deciphering the subtext of these various relationships as the plot speeds ahead to watching Jenni and Mac trade not only knowledge but chunks of their innate humanity in order to keep up with the replicating virus. What’s interesting is that instead of watching five scientists take the plunge, we’re instead challenged to take sides on the issue of basically downloading your brain into DEINDE: Do we agree with the ambitious Mac and Jenni that this radical technology is the logical next step forward for limited humans, or do we share Cooper and Malcolm’s cautious hesitance?
Although the story moves at a rapid clip, there are a few moments that pull you out of the story somewhat, that seem a bit too calculated. For instance, there seems to be so much layered onto Mac’s character: He’s the most obviously passive of the bunch, he’s got Native American ancestry, etc. He seems almost too perfect a test subject to fall prey to DEINDE’s seductive enhancements. And while Jenni’s girlfriend Mindy (Sol Marina Crespo) is the ideal foil as an artist, we never get to witness this clash of art versus science. However, the masterful staging of layering three different scenes into one room, so that we swing from sickbed to laboratory to break room, creates stirring contrast between these friends and competitors, even as the self-made gods begin to struggle against their restraints.
Deinde is strongest in the sequences where we can’t afford the clinical detachment to ponder the ramifications of a thought supercomputer, but instead are caught up in the utter turmoil of actively evolving beyond your peers’ physical and mental capabilities. This is where Tanenbaum shines as Mac, the underdog simultaneously gifted and constrained with interacting with his former superiors. His frustration at being unable to communicate DEINDE’s formulas and art with people who aren’t “looped in” surges hotly and crashes up against his human counterparts in utterly terrifying sequences.
But when it’s not emotion propelling the scenes, some of Deinde becomes ponderous or even predictable. Some important developments occur offstage; obviously this is a liability with a limited set, but the downside is that those revelations lose their power when they’re communicated secondhand. That said, Deinde provokes conversation at every turn: Unlike other cautionary tales about the technological singularity, DEINDE the machine never becomes self-aware like the Terminator franchise’s feared Skynet system. The singularity is us, merged into one being suddenly painfully aware of humanity’s failings and zealously committed to knitting us together into some deus ex machina.
Neurologist Daniel Nemerov is introduced along with DEINDE as its creator, and yet he never serves a larger role than exposition (despite Matthew Trumbull’s hilarious delivery). Even though he conceived of this technology and claims to have tested it himself, Daniel seems unaffected whereas Mac and Jenni immediately begin suffering the debilitating side effects. In discussing the show with friends, I realized that it’s really only the American characters who find their minds warped and their egos swelled — I’m curious if that’s a commentary on Western culture.
You get the sense that Deinde is just one of many stories that could have cropped up in this complex emotional web that Schulenberg has created. If only we had the chance to explore those alternate realities as well.
Deinde runs through May 12th at the Secret Theatre in Queens, New York (44-02 23rd Street) Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble, it’s part of the BFG Collective that has produced Mac Rogers’ Advance Man and Blast Radius. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors.
Photos: Justin Hoch
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.