Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: You Are Important To Me

By Ed Malin

Leah Nanako Winkler’s The Adventures of Minami: The Robot from Japan Who Makes You Feel Safe When Loneliness is Palpable: Part I is now playing at The Brick.  The show, dazzlingly directed by Matt Dickson, is an expanded version of Winkler’s Taisetsu na Hito seen in the Sex With Robots Festival and the Off-Off Broadway Play Festival.  Judging by the title, even more of this story is to come.  Since it does not fail to be of interest and provoke conversation among humans, I am very glad.
Bethany (Elizabeth Zephyrine McDonough) and Charles (Alex Herrald ) are an American couple who purchase soft-spoken domestic robot Minami (Yurika Ohno).  (By the way, an Osaka department store seems to have created a robot Minami in recent years.  The robot was modeled on a popular music “idol”.)   Minami is a somewhat awkward, stoically beautiful, extremely compliant female robot whose language settings are stuck on Japanese.  While she repeats several deferential stock phrases, her ordinary Caucasian “masters” grow frustrated and yell at her.  When Bethany is not in the room, Charles bites Minami’s arm.  When Charles is not in the room, Bethany licks Minami’s face.  The objectification and fetishization of the “other” will hopefully make you uncomfortable. The things that Bethany and Charles want so badly they yell for (ham loaf?) appear as trivial and ugly, while Minami, who does not loudly relieve herself the way Charles does, can only appear more elegant than her “owners”. Eventually, Bethany and Charles reignite the lust part of their relationship through using Minami.  Each brief scene is punctuated with jarring, dissonant noise.  This is the kind of theater that I love to see when I want to understand white/human privilege.  I mean, does my cat think I’m an arrogant bastard because I talk down to her?  Later, when Minami’s language switch has been set to English, we hear what she has been trying to say all along “You are important to me. Speaking with you makes me happy.”, etc.
Charles finally boxes up Minami and sells her to a young woman (Jahna Ferron-Smith ), who is willing to overlook the bite marks on Minami’s arm.  Charles takes his sweet time counting the money, just another resonant detail about the priorities of our species.  Minami’s new companion is grieving her mother.  You would think Minami would be the perfect, compassionate listener for someone seeking a personal connection in a suddenly more overtly hostile country.
Then, Minami is back with a robotics lecturer from Japan (Ariel Estrada) who is on tour in the USA. As this Professor speaks, he convinces his audience that belief in something gives the thing reality.  Vanessa (Merissa Czyz) is a groupie who wants to go to the Professor's hotel room at the Hilton.  She likes smart men and also Asians.  These qualities make her wet.  We learn that this Minami is indeed the same one who was returned, with bite marks.  She still looks great.
Back at the hotel, Vanessa thinks Minami is looking at her mid-makeout.  But not with human eyes so not really looking.  Yet, thinking that Minami can see her makes that capability real, the Professor says.  He idealizes Minami, who can't help being more beautiful and perfect, to the Professor, than Vanessa. "It's not you, it's her."  I wonder if, in the near future, more human dates will end badly for this reason.
Robots are nice, predictable, rational folk.  Isaac Asimov’s first three laws of robotics are referenced in the play.  So, if you like robots more than people, or didn’t know you did, you will love this play.   But are we robots?  See Vanessa hit on the Professor for no other reason than his smart, Asian stereotype.  It’s kind of like she was programmed.  Why are Bethany and Charles so unhappy with all the things they have acquired?  Do you know anyone like that, and who is responsible?  Are privileged Americans buying into the media’s representation of immigrants and foreigners as somehow unsophisticated?  It’s not a preachy play, which is why I liked watching every moment of it. This stark production and absolutely amazing cast will have you asking questions and thinking about reality for a long time afterwards.