In 1968 Philip K. Dick asked if sentient machines had feelings in the title of his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Adam Scott Mazer’s Oedipal fantasmagoria Motherboard asks the related question “do gynoids lactate electrolytes?” As the pun in the name implies, Motherboard posits technology as humanity’s nourishing mother. Tech is not just a tool that we created and control, it makes us human. And like all bad children, we get into big trouble when we talk back to mommy.
The year is 2465 CE. Human society is what you expect in a futuristic dystopia: “microgovernments” control armed outposts, and in between those islands of military civility are wastelands of rovers and scavengers á là Mad Max. (For a current Sci-Fi exposition of this scenario watch JJ Abrams’s new show Revolution.) Twenty years earlier the machines rose up, nearly achieving a genocide against their human masters, while thoroughly shattering humanity’s complacent, utopian, tech-induced reverie. The humans fought back and destroyed (nearly) all electronic machines, but in the process our saviors cast us back into the Dark Ages.
Abraham (Casey Robinson), a war hero who led the human resistance, and Gershwin (James Rutherford), a scientist and dangerous free thinker, are examining a defunct gynoid, C-12 (Rebecca Hirota), one of the “Nurtureon” class of gynoids developed just before the war, created with special, state-of-the-art programming that allows them to empathize. Technophobe Abraham wants to smash all the machines including C-12, but tech-curious Gershwin, wanting to talk to the alien machine lady, reanimates her with dire consequences: she escapes and in the process pulls off Abraham’s arm.
The rest of the play dramatizes C-12’s quest to “get home.” Along the way she meets a pair of scavengers named Maggot (Bryce Henry) and Sweetums (Allison Laplatney) who work for a local warlord Ned (Andrew Krug) and his child bride / girly sex toy Penelope (Elizabeth Bays). Maggot and Sweetums speak in a colorful patois as they scrounge for a plant that contains some kind of opiate alkaloid and scheme on how to make a few pennies by selling C-12 as a sex slave to Ned, who gives C-12 to Penelope for her collection of electronics, which, of course, is contraband according to Abraham’s microgovernment.
Penelope, an electronics savant, loves C-12 and hates the baby Ned made on her. Fortunately for Penelope, C-12 is a Nurtureon, which means she not only knows how to take care of Penelope’s baby, she can also breastfeed it from her mechanical boobies. (My fertile imagination raced through the possibilities of machine produced baby food, including but not limited to formula, strained beets, and wheatgrass smoothies with added 65740 Techron Concentrate Plus intestinal lubricant.) Unfortunately for this New Femi-Tech Utopia in the making, Abraham (do I have to point out that he’s an OT patriarch?) bursts in with a bunch of heavily armed soldiers to break up the ladies’ mutual admiration society. The tragic climax of the play has Abraham screaming at C-12 as he tears her limb from limb with his bare hands: “I will fuck my wife inside of you!”
Clearly Abe has mommy issues.
The fun conceptual twist at the heart of Motherboard is Mazer’s re-imagining of tech as inherently feminine. We are culturally habituated to think of techies as sexually unappealing men. This stereotype is rooted in Mary Shelley’s classic Sci-Fi prototype Frankenstein, where men dominate and exploit technology to compensate for their inability to create new people the old-fashioned way: in a womb. As you may remember, Frankenstein’s monster kills all the women in the book as revenge for not being able to procreate himself. Shelley’s vision of technology is misogyny writ large. From Penelope’s perspective, however, technology’s ability to supplant human reproduction means freedom from the need to reproduce. Penelope embodies the classical liberal techno-fantasy of freedom from material, and hence social, constraints, a freedom that the patriarchal Abraham can’t endure. Seen from this angle Motherboard is a pro-science tragedy about the illiberality of traditional masculinity.
But if the tech is so good and maternal, why did it rise against us in the first place? The answer is, we were bad, bad boys. In the final showdown Abraham asks C-12 why the machines gave up before they finished the job of wiping humans off the planet. C-12 tells him that the machines always existed to serve humans, but they knew that we humans, with our innate propensity to over-consume and destroy our environment, needed a good dose of discipline if we were to survive. So they spanked us. Ironically, Abraham, who is one giant symbolic phallus, tells her that he survived the first machine assault precisely because he was a bad boy: while the other kids were slaughtered at school by the airconditioning system, he lived because he had been sent home for fighting.
Will Fulton’s direction takes Motherboard’s melodrama to its rightful place: the English Renaissance. His staging of Mazer’s script reads like Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy or Titus Andronicus. This is, I think, just the right choice for this script. Because some of the characters are so archetypal, and consequently, because they sometimes talk past one another as archetypes do (imagine Gilgamesh having a chat with Hitler and Han Solo), the over-the-top blood and guts of the show make what could have been borderline banal into something horrifying and entertaining. The production crew, especially the costumer and prop manager, deserve praise for their creative realizations of Mazer’s violently sanguinary script. If you’re up for a little futuristic gore this Halloween season, Motherboard will not disappoint.
The Secret Theater
Through October 14th