Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The [Curious Case of] The Watson Intelligence

Playwright:  Madeleine George

Running Time:  2 hours 40 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Thursday, January 21, 2016. 

Madeleine George’s The [Curious Case of the] Watson Intelligence (hereafter Watson) reminds me of how some describe their relationships: “It’s complicated.”  Unfortunately, this story is ambitious and complicated to a fault.

Watson is a script that challenges audiences.  It’s non-linear; the events take place “simultaneously” over a period of 135 years.  The show opens in 2011, and then bounces around between March 1876, March 1891, and the present.  The characters named Watson (Jack Williamson) include a humanoid artificial intelligence (otherwise known as a robot), a computer nerd, and Sherlock Holmes’ loyal companion of the same name.  Add to that the Watson at the other end of the line when Alexander Graham Bell rang him up (“Watson, come here.  I want to see you.”) and you can appreciate how difficult this role (4 different Watsons) must be for Williamson.
Jack Williamson as Watson (Bell's assistant).

Williamson is highly flexible; his robotic Watson is just as convincing as his somewhat forgotten Watson in telephone history.  His best moments, though, come as the Watson of the “Dweeb Team.”  Williamson’s innocent charm comes through even while he spies on Eliza.  He’s not very good at being a spy; in fact, he’s more naive and bumbling than Inspector Clousseau.

For that matter, everyone in this cast of three accomplished actors (Jonathan Margheim as Merrick and Holly Haverkorn as Eliza round out the cast) seamlessly moves from century to century and from one character to another.  These are some inspired performances, making Watson an engaging adventure through time and technology.

Jonathan Margheim (Merrick).
Margheim is especially effective as the sleazy Merrick who hires his tech guy (Williamson as Watson of the "Dweeb Team") to spy on his ex-wife Eliza.  This Merrick is a particularly odious guy; a political bomb thrower running for office so he can dismantle the office he’s seeking.  (SET’s timing is exquisite here, as there are several politicians running for President with similar views on governing.)   Merrick’s compulsive obsession with his ex-wife borders on stalking, and Margheim’s performance is both scary and convincing.

Holly Haverkorn’s Eliza(s) are equally notable, as she travels through time trying to reconcile technology and with her troubled relationships.  She does a radio interview with Watson (the one that worked with Alexander G. Bell), and is frustrated by his obvious attempts to get some credit for Bell’s invention.  Haverkorn is bored but listens, responding with eye rolling skepticism.  As Watson splits grammatical hairs over Bell’s “Watson, come here” quote, Haverkorn responds a silent  but devastating dismissiveness.
Holly Haverkorn (Eliza), Jack Williamson (Watson).
Anna Faye Hunter’s marvelous set straddles the centuries, with circuit board images alongside Victorian touches.  Lighting Designer Brianna G. Pilon has strung Edison style bulbs around the audience and the stage, highlighting the dawn of the electronics age.  Director Sarah Shaver sets a pensive pace that allows some of the playwrights deep themes to simmer.  Shaver’s pace is accelerated, however, for every scene change; the stage hands are beautifully choreographed and coordinated to to minimize the time spent moving set pieces.  

All of which is to say that this is a brilliant production of a script that seems, at times, to collapse from its own weight.  The ideas presented are too numerous to fully develop in a single script:  
  • History repeats itself.
  • Technology burrows into our lives, making things better.
  • Technology burrows into our lives, making things worse.
  • Relationships are important but difficult.
  • Technology disrupts relationships.
  • Genius needs the support of others.
  • Supporting a genius does not in itself bestow the status of a genius.
Any of these themes in isolation would be fertile material for a script, but all in combination results in a muddled message.  While the script climaxes with some focus and clarity (which I will not spoil here), the message is by then diluted by the two hour investment made by the audience.  Saving the message of a script for the last 60 seconds of any show is risky.

SET has made a noble effort to present a difficult script, and that effort is much appreciated.  Watson is fully consistent with the SET mission statement, and this production is one to be be proud of, despite my criticism of the script.  

Theater is subjective and personal.  What I found lacking may be inspiring for others.  As for me, I can only agree with the robot Watson’s lament:

“I don’t think I understand what you mean, but I’d like to.  Can you give me a nudge in the right direction?”


There is adult language and there are adult situations  in Watson.  Exercise discretion with preteens and younger teens.

The program credits the running crew, and I have included that information below.  They zipped through the scene changes, quickly adjusting the set between scenes.  I suspect they may have rehearsed nearly as much as the cast.  

There is ample free parking in the lot across the street, and on surrounding streets. Concessions are available and can be consumed in the theater. 


Pre/Post Show Dining Recommendation:

As is our habit for shows at SET, we had dinner at China Village, 203 N. Union, before the show.  We had the “family dinner,” which includes appetizers, soup, and an entree.  We had enough food for a second meal (Chinese take out in a sense), and it was all very good.  Service was quick and friendly; our waiter was one of the best we’ve had at this establishment.  China Village is conveniently located less than 5 minutes to/from the theater. 


Producers:  Sarah S. Shaver, Jenny Maloney & Matt Radcliff

Director:  Sarah S. Shaver

Technical Director/Set Build:  Crystal Carter

Sound Design:  Bob Morsch

Set Design:  Anna Faye Hunter

Lighting Design:  Brianna G. Pilon

Costume Design:  Sarah S. Shaver

Lead Wardrobe:  Hannah McCullough

Costume Construction:  Jillmarie Peterson

Hair/Wardrobe:  Ethan Gann

Stage Manager:  Gabriel Espinoza-Lira

Props Design: Charles Redding, Emory John Collinson

Lead Wardrobe:  Hannah McCullough

Hair/Wardrobe:  Ethan Gann

Dramaturg:  LeAnne Carrouth

Dialect Coach:  Alysabeth Clements Mosley

Running Crew:  Cheyenne York, Rebecca Savage, Brittani Janish & Brendan Foster.

Board Operation:  Gabriel Espinoza-Lira & Micha Spiers

Box Office:  Emory John Collinson

Graphic Designer:  Pat Collins


Watson:  Jack Williamson

Eliza:  Holly Haverkorn

Merrick:  Jonathan Margheim

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