Saturday, May 11, 2019

"Autonomy" by Mixed Blood Theatre at the St. Paul RiverCentre

Mixed Blood Theatre's latest project is wildly ambitious, and they accomplish it quite brilliantly. Reminiscent of Safe at Home, a walking play staged in nine locations at CHS Field with precise timing, Autonomy is a driving play staged at nine locations within the exhibit hall at St. Paul RiverCentre. It's a play about climate change, immigration, and autonomous vehicles (aka self-driving cars). A great guideline for making theater is "content dictates form," so when the content is about cars, why not surround the audience with classic cars and have them drive around in golf carts? A little on-the-nose, but it's quite effective. It's really too bad they're only running it for one weekend. There are four more groups of performances but only extremely limited tickets remain. Autonomy is a forward-thinking experiment in theater like you've never seen before.

The story of Autonomy centers around a young woman named Gabby Reyes, in the far off future of 2022 (actually just three years from now). Gabby is a computer programmer whose mission is to create software that allows cars to talk to each other, decreasing accidents, and make it available for free to everyone. She's motivated by the death of her father, an old school truck driver, who worked to the point of exhaustion and crashed his truck. Complicating the matter is a 2021 law that declares only people who are born in America can live in America, which puts Gabby, who came to the US with her parents as a child, at risk of deportation. When a big company (Amazon, et al.) hears about her software, they try to force her to take it down, because they're developing something similar for profit. A subplot involves an epidemic started by a pathogen released from melting polar ice caps, one of the dangers of climate change, that these autonomous vehicles may help to slow down.

Isabella LaBlanc as Gabby (photo by Rich Ryan)
All of this plays out in nine precisely timed scenes, as the audience is driven around the exhibit hall (where the food is for Festival of Nations) in golf carts. At each performance, 12 groups of 24 leave 10 minutes apart. All of the scenes take place simultaneously in the same room, so we're given radios with a single earbud and all of the actors are miked. Each group's radios are tuned to a different channel, so we hear the scene that's playing out in front of us. Two of the scenes are videos, the rest are live action. The character of Gabby appears in three scenes, accomplished by having three actors play the role, so that each group gets the same Gabby throughout. The backdrop of the story is a wide array of classic cars, noted in the program, which also details scene locations, dates, and characters. (Scenic and media design by Anna Robinson.)

Arctic explorers James Denton and Rainbow Dickerson
(photo by Rich Ryan)
Director Jack Reuler helms this ambitious project, achieving the technical elements, and creating some lovely human moments in each of the scenes. I was lucky enough to have Isabella LaBlanc as Gabby (also played by Kiko Laureano and Malachi Gaballero), creating a sympathetic portrait of this young woman who's easy to root for. Many MBT and #TCTheater favorites show up, some only in voice (including a comedy break in the form of a video of Stephen Yoakam as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher as Mr. PeaNUTmobile, and Joy Dolo as the Red Bull car). Rainbow Dickerson and James Denton (anyone remember Desperate Housewives?) are a couple of Arctic esplorers, Bruce A. Young and Tom Reed play friends who bond over the demise of classic cars, Michael Laskin is an elderly man whose optometrist (Kate Fuglei) tells him he shouldn't drive anymore, and Randy Reyes, Nathan Barlow, play Ansa Akyea the corporate bullies who come after our Gabby.

After seeing the show, I'm not sure if autonomous vehicles are a good thing or a bad thing. I guess like any technology, it's neither good nor bad, it's how we use it, who has access to it, and who profits from it. The last scene, with the charismatic Harry Waters Jr. giving a spiel about the future and singing a rousing song, makes it look pretty great. Whether or not it's practical and will really come to pass, only the future knows.

A couple of tips if you go. When they tell you to get there 30 minutes before your start time, they aren't kidding. This is a well-oiled machine with no late starts. They start loading the golf carts 10 minutes out, and gathering groups 20 minutes out, so allow plenty of time to park and get to the RiverCentre in time. If you've ever been to the Festival of Nations, you'll be familiar with the box office/entrance at the top of the escalators. I highly recommend bringing your own earbuds or headphones, especially if they're good noise cancelling ones. I was a bit overwhelmed by the bright lights, riding in a golf cart sitting backwards, and the loud music blaring, so I plugged my ears between scenes, not realizing that there was some sound coming through the earbud, both a voiceover from Gabby and some commentary from the guide. The best experience would be to block out all external noise (including scene transition music and ambient sound from other scenes) and only hear what's coming through the radio.