Humanity’s hope

Control (Observatory Theatre)

Queensland Multicultural Centre

June 8 – 11

In spite of its big ideas, science fiction does not really exist as a genre in theatre the same way it does in other artistic spheres. Perhaps this is because of its assumed reliance on visual aspects of its bold storytelling. As Observatory Theatre’s “CONTROL” illustrates, however, this is not the only ingredient necessary for sci-fi success.

Keziah Warner’s “CONTROL” is an epic sci-fi story. Told across multiple decades at a time, the dystopian tale begins in 2030 through a reality tv lens. A Big Brother style show is set on a space ship travelling to an exclusive utopia hospitality encampment on Mars. Four C-grade celebrities of the time, ridiculously pregnant ex-ballerina Laura (Nykita O’Keeffe), strong and independent pop princess Elizabeth (Triona Calimbayan-Giles), a bitter divorced puppeteer Andrew (Egan Sun-Bin) and a tv detective of sorts Jake (Matt Domingo), are constantly filmed as they co-exist in their pod. Incentivised by the potential financial rewards that come from successful completion of secret challenges, their performances for the camera are far from boring and wonderful to watch, even if the many early short and sharp scenes make it difficult to connect with their characters. Over time, the performers’ vivid portrayals do invigorate our investment in their stories, however, by then the story is moving on from any ‘tv show or science experiment’ considerations.

Under Timothy Wynn’s direction of the play’s Queensland premiere, three loosely-connected narratives of appropriately equal length offer opportunity for consideration of the moral ambiguities around power and control. The second story, takes place in 2050, in what is retrospectively known as the riot era. On the eve of a revolution, two women, Nicki and Caroline, played by O’Keeffe and Calimbayan-Giles, discuss the jobs at Brisbane’s Museum of Childhood public storage bank where childhood memories are externally stored and commodified. As they interact with their AI superior Alex (Sun-Bin), conversation turns to the have and have-nots of client access to either the system’s full or limited free versions. Enter dissatisfied customer Xavier (Matt Domingo), half-brother of Jake from the Mars pod of two decades prior, with request for deletion of his captured memories and we are given further glimpses into the potential dangers of relinquishing control.  

Thirty years later, on a clean slate New Earth, we meet Nicki’s daughter Isabelle (O’Keeffe), tutor to humanoid AI Esta (Calimbayan-Giles), who is learning to become a teacher. As Isabelle manually adjusts Esta’s levels of emotion and ability levels to create a perfect primary school teacher’s personality, Esta exhibits unusual flashes of humanity towards a building relationship between the two.  

While the first story is the most entertaining, with its frequent interaction of all four characters, the final of the trilogy is the most interesting. This is largely due to Calimbayan-Giles’ performance. While she does well to make each of her characters completely distinct, including through some good accent work, it is her perfectly pitched performance as an AI character that shines the brightest. Without overplaying what could have been a one-note take, she brings a real pathos to the role of Esta, elevating the dilemma created by the charming simplicity of her the functionality and her emerging independence of thought and feeling. Sun-Bin, too, leaves his mark, bringing much humour to the first story, sometimes without even saying a word, such as in conveyance of his frustrations of being unable to provide acceptable sound bites to Big Brother questioning about his biggest fear et al.

Although not always sparingly, Warner’s script uses dialogue to allow its audience to build the worlds of its three stories themselves, but their creation is aided by the work of the show’s creatives. Nathaniel Knight’s lovely lighting lushes over the first story in particular and Juleece Dawe’s sound design sets us firmly in the world of a 2050 Brisbane office.

Despite some of the 20th century’s greatest literature being set in the future, science fiction, sadly, remains largely underrepresented in the theatre. Thankfully, however, there are shows like “CONTROL”, which, offers up a clever tale for fans of the genre and general theatre-goers alike. Its intelligent script considers language carefully to guide its audience into contemplation of the ethics and morality of our future technological directions, without providing any definitive answers. Indeed, its big questions about the objectification of humanity are crafted around individual character dilemmas of their own with regards to how they are seen by others, meaning that its audience is left with much to contemplate about if there is hope for humanity in a world controlled by technology.  

Photos c/o – Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography