Send me to the future and you have my attention. God is an Iron starts while the audience members meander to their seats to a promotional ad for a device that promises to cure depression, complete with quotes from the Dali Lama and a doctor guaranteeing safety. Next, the producer steps up to deliver a trigger-inducing trigger-warning. If I feel disturbed enough by what I am about to see, I am allowed to leave the theatre. Well, I’ve seen a few scenes of horrific brutality in my day that sickened me for weeks. Not one carried a warning. How brutal can this play be? What have I signed up for?
The year is 2030. Joe (Gordon Watts) stumbles in on a suicide attempt which is not so much as death by pleasure as it is death while doing something pleasurable. Joe intervenes and the “victim” now must face a challenging question: once life’s maximum pleasure has been reached, what meaning does life have left, especially if life is otherwise empty? Such is the central question behind God is an Iron, a philosophical drama based on Spider Robinson’s short story of the same name.
Karen (Tali Brady), the suicide victim, chooses a “method” known as “wireheading”. Wireheads plug themselves into a device that stimulates the pleasure centre of the brain. Think Strange Days’ “squidding” or even Brave New World’s soma. Joe unhooks Karen from the machine and her appreciation of this rude interruption consists of breaking his nose. Joe with blood gushing spends the next period of days investigating what happened while Karen’s life lies in limbo.
Like a good sleuth from a Philip K. Dick novel, with painkillers and alcohol to buoy him, Joe uses a Siri-like computer to uncover the reasons behind Karen’s suicide attempt. He figures out why she has chosen this particular method, but he can not determine why she has chosen to kill herself or why now.
Up until this point, the story is engrossing. Generally, science fiction is irresistible stuff, and the wireheading device, the computer-aided-detective-work, and even some of the world building that deepens this production via the computer/video is atmospheric. I am hopeful for Joe to get to the bottom of this tragedy and share in his frustration when he can go no further without Karen.
In addition to their ingenuity in creating a futuristic world, Black Box Productions is great at creating ambiguities and red herrings. Who is Joe and why is he here? Does he succeed in his intervention? There is a judicious withholding of information that keeps the suspense high. The company is also good when it keeps emotion in check. Karen’s life story is chillingly told with a fine edge between flatness and overwhelming grief.
The last third of the play, though, quickly transforms into a tedious discussion about pleasure, its absence, and the meaning of life. Almost point for point, Joe and Karen argue back and forth but with nebulous reasoning. For example, when discussing sugar and the body’s reward system, not only does the discussion sound like woo-woo science, but the actors don’t use the dialogue to deepen their characters’ connection. It’s a shouty argument lacking nuance. The philosophical aspects of the discussion should be more carefully planted, the end better anticipated.
This leads to my primary concern with this work, and I’m not sure who gets the finger of blame here. Sci-fi author, Spider Robinson, wrote God is an Iron as a short story and perhaps it should have stayed that way. What works as prose narrative, even a dialogue-rich one, doesn’t necessarily translate into a dramatic production well. Parts of this show are commendably clever in how they utilize the original text (you can read it HERE). Other parts are just lost in translation, so to speak. Rewritten, they’d probably be okay. Black Box already added to the text with its opening video. Unfortunately, the delivery of all that philosophical wanking is too much for a new theatre company, perhaps too much for an old theatre company.
This earnest production by Black Box Productions demonstrates great enthusiasm and commitment from its actors. They take on a challenging piece — and not because of those highlighted triggers which led me to expect a more visceral play. Rather, Black Box Theatre successfully rises to the challenge of crafting a believable world where an isolated woman can try to kill herself while at the height of pleasure and an isolated man can try to stop her.
God is an Iron plays at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St Laurent) until September 20. $20/18. Tickets and times can be found HERE.