I’m delighted to report that science fiction plays seem to be becoming more common in the New York City indie theater scene, rather than a passing trend. The Secret Theatre in particular plays host to more and more stories of dystopian futures where aliens or machinery have overwhelmed the puny human population. Unfortunately, as the sample size of a genre increases, not every entry will be as mind-blowing as what came before. Such is the case with Motherboard, a post-apocalyptic robot tale that makes us sympathize with machines more than humans but fails to give us a wholly compelling dramatic arc.
AntiMatter Collective is incredibly ambitious for setting the play's action hundreds of years from now: In 2445, humans are utterly dependent on machines, trusting androids as their labor and caretakers. But then the robots inexplicably rebel, causing global war and forcing humans to detonate nuclear bombs in the Earth’s atmosphere. Twenty years later, humanity has adapted to a life completely off the grid, with no internet to link them and even the simplest spark of electricity outlawed. C-12 (Rebecca Hirota), a “Nurtureon,” awakens in a human military compound and escapes to find the family she used to take care of.
The wording I’m using—“escapes”—implies that C-12 is the victim here, and yet her getaway involves ripping off someone’s arm. Motherboard is filled with moments like these, where we find ourselves most often taking C-12’s side even when she uses violence and manipulation to get what she needs. Or when we realize, early on, that she likely murdered the family she was charged to protect, like all robots did in the uprising.
Hirota embodies C-12 with the help of just some artfully placed silver body paint and eerie pale contact lenses and her mastery of the formal, oddly articulated, artificially emotional robot language is a delight to watch. Is it so surprising that with the robot as the protagonist, humans simply don’t hold a light to her? Likely part of this affinity grows out of the fact that as we meet the various human subsets who all want C-12 for different reasons, her presence is the only consistent element in the play.
Many robot stories I’ve read seem to basically transplant androids into existing society, with the dramatic irony centering on humans’ inability to discern what’s flesh-and-blood and what’s wires. But in Motherboard, C-12 is the only creature who’s fully functioning. As a result of the war—or perhaps even because of the absence of machines around which their society has always operated—humanity has splintered. Average folks like Sweetums (Allison Laplatney) and Maggot (Bryce Henry) have regressed to almost animal form, their tattered clothing and strictly hierarchical relationships bringing to mind BDSM play. This motley duo, chattering in futuristic abbreviated slang and always on the lookout for their next piece of “trade,” bring to mind the hyenas from Disney’s The Lion King. It’s a relief when they get caught by The Man and are shut up, however briefly.
Ironically, these dregs of society refer to the government as “roaches,” matching a level of disdain for authority that’s intriguing but never explained. Leading the militia is Abraham (Casey Robinson), a captain in forced retirement simply because there’s no war. His zeal to eliminate the lone robot fascinatingly mirrors C-12’s need to obey her own function, but sometimes his motivations come across as too two-dimensional.
Somewhat more bearable is Penelope (Elizabeth Bays), a 17-year-old savant and Maggot and Sweetums’ queen. Like many dystopian leader figures, Penelope is just as cracked up as her servants: Despite putting on an impressive show in front of other authority, in truth she’s a hermit who’s only happy when she’s retreated to the haven of her basement and her “collection” of hoarded, forbidden electronics. I would’ve liked to see more of this subplot, but it’s introduced so late that it just becomes another plot point to help C-12 reach her goal.
A lot of speculative fiction works because although the writer devotes plenty of attention to world building, the actual story is necessarily, inversely small. In this way, we witness the seemingly quotidian human dramas against the larger backdrop of a changed world, and find something familiar. But Motherboard’s stories are too scattered to truly find emotional footing with the audience. Abraham’s need to jump into this new war is urgent only because he tells us it is; Maggot and Sweetums are more of an example of the decline of civilization, though they do have one wrenching moment where all their posturing is stripped away.
What we witness are different examples of how screwed up humanity is, without any reason for us to actually care. The show clocks in at two hours with no intermission, and while in some instances it seems like the characters don’t get enough time to fully realize their arcs, you find yourself happy to reach the final, bloody fight scene.
Something that AntiMatter gets wonderfully right is the special effects. I’ve seen indie theater productions that utilize cap guns or fake blood, but never both and never so deftly and violently that you don’t notice the moment of artifice between the fake gunshot and the fake flesh and blood that goes spattering. Playwright Adam Scott Mazer was also the fight choreographer; he arranges his dialogue around these hold-your-breath tense sequences, making for a choppy but engaging pace.
Other sci-fi indie theater spans its story over multiple plays. Perhaps it would have benefitted Motherboard to be a trilogy, allowing us to better process this alien future and commentary on how machinery—and then the lack thereof—changes the fabric of our civilization.
Motherboard runs through October 14th, at the Secret Theatre in Queens, New York (4402 23rd Street). Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets ($18) can be purchased online at motherboard.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 1-800-838-3006.
Photos: Jonathan Shaw
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.