Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stacking The Deck

In just a few weeks marine historians will observe the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Dubbed as "the ship that God himself could not sink," the Titanic found itself broken in half and resting on the ocean floor on April 15, 1912 thanks to the use of lesser-grade steel in its construction and the folly of man.

When the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant started to make news, some people referred to the tragedy as another instance of "the Titanic syndrome." Despite assurances that adequate protections were in place, things went disastrously wrong following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan earlier this month.

Conservatives like to boast that the business community can police itself. And that the invisible hand of the free market can resolve any problems. They often choose to ignore the fact that their favorite hand is attached to the hearts, minds, and souls of ruthlessly greedy people who will stop at nothing to obtain an unfair advantage that can lead to larger profits.

While many people know the refrain from "The Money Song" that was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for their 1966 hit musical, Cabaret, few remember this part of the song's lyric:
"If you happen to be rich,
And you feel like a
Night's entertainment
You can pay for a
Gay escapade.

If you happen to be rich,
And alone, and you
Need a companion
You can ring-ting-a-ling
for the maid.

If you happen to be rich
And you find you are
Left by your lover,
Though you moan and you groan
Quite a lot,
You can take it on the chin,
Call a cab and begin
To recover
On your fourteen-carat yacht."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Having recently enjoyed the world premiere of Hermes (his dazzling two-act play about dysfunctional behavior let loose on the world's global financial markets), Bennett Fisher's contribution to the tenth annual Bay One Acts Festival proved to be equally controversial.

n the past 25 years, computer applications have transformed financial transactions so that they now happen at lightning speed with far-reaching consequences. Inspired by a story that he heard on NPR, Pure Baltic Avenue lets the audience in on a vicious real estate scam similar to what took place in Arizona.

One thing's for sure: When people learn how to brazenly game the system, altruistic intent is the first thing to fly out the window. Instead of the invisible hand of the free market, what the audience sees in Pure Baltic Avenue is the invisible hand of the free market on drugs.

Fisher's play revolves around a get rich quick scheme in which three real estate speculators and a merrily enabling appraiser keep flipping a residential property between themselves so that its value quickly increases. With each sale, one of the participants calls the bank and asks for a mortgage loan (which is automatically granted). The paperwork is instantly signed, stamped, and notarized and the property trades hands in a ritual celebrating the group's power, chicanery, and bravado.

Breckenridge (Cooper Carlson), Irving (Nick Allen), Conway (Chris Quintos)
and DeWitt (Samuel Richie) in Bennett Fisher's Pure Baltic Avenue
(Photo by: Clay Robeson)

Whether you choose to call it a round-robin scheme in trading mortgages, a financial game of "Tag, You're It!" or a real estate focused Ponzi scheme, the last person to sign the papers comes out with a property that has been assessed at a ridiculously inflated value. So it's easy to understand why, when a bank officer shows up wanting to know how three mortgages got sold for the same property within an hour, the participants cagily trick the bank officer into signing the next set of papers and becoming the new owner of a severely overvalued property.

Produced by Threshold and directed by Alex Curtis, Pure Baltic Avenue's energy is reminiscent of how people who are high on the effects of power, drugs, money, or poppers like to take increasingly bold risks. I especially liked the performances of Samuel Richie as DeWitt and Marie O'Donnell as Parker (the bank's shocked representative).

* * * * * * * * *
In December of 2010 I attended a reading of a controversial new play about artificial intelligence co-written by Matthew Benjamin and Logan Brown. At the time, Wirehead seemed pretty tight and ready for production. SFPlayhouse is currently offering the regional premiere of the Benjamin/Brown play. I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in technology check it out.

The premise is easy enough to understand. A Chinese company has been manufacturing brain implants that are so expensive that only very wealthy people can afford them. The ability to have a nanocomputer inside one's head allows people to do extreme calculations, invent cures for diseases, and grasp difficult concepts with a complexity and rapidity previously unknown to man.

Some people desperately want to get Symtel's implants. Others are a bit more wary of what the company's new technology might do to life as we know it.  But in one office, a crisis is already evolving.

Adams (Craig Marker) and Destry (Gabriel Marin) are two young executives who learn  that their flunky, a trust fund baby named Hamilton(Cole Alexander Smith), has purchased one of the brain implants. With his new brain power, Hammy (who could barely tie his shoelaces before) has been able to steal their most lucrative account. Something has to be done -- and done fast.

Adams (Craig Marker), Hamilton (Cole Alexander Smith) and
Destry (Gabriel Marin) in Wirehead. (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

But when Adams reaches over and accidentally pulls the implant out of Hammy's head (along with some of the young man's brain tissue), what started as an argument turns into a homicide. What should the two flustered executives do next?

It doesn't help that their girlfriends are eager to tie the knot. Laura (Lauren Grace) comes from a wealthy family who are all getting the implants and is sure that Adams will qualify for one, too (she's more than willing to have Daddy check into his test results). Destry's girlfriend, Monyca (Madeline H.D. Brown) is an artist who has her doubts about the new technology. In his program note, SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English, writes:
"We live in a time of exponentially advancing progress.  As the recent 'Jeopardy!' incident demonstrated, computers are rapidly approaching the capacity of the human brain to process information. It is inevitable that they will soon surpass us. Technology is altering the way our consciousness perceives reality so rapidly that we can barely cope with the flood of new information, let alone comprehend its significance to our quality of life. Medical science has devised hundreds of ways for technology to interface directly with the brain. Soon there will be many more.
  • Will fear hold us back?  
  • Are technological advances all good for us?  
  • Are these changes inevitable? 
  • Will irresponsible research destroy us?
  • Is it possible to roll back the force of progress?  
  • Where is the balance between caution and paranoia, between the hope for a better life and the grasping for an advantage?
  • Should there be laws governing the power of technology to affect our consciousness?
Many feel the need for humanity to evolve. Others cling to our flawed but familiar forms. Wirehead is a wakeup call for all of us as we plunge headlong into uncharted waters."    

A doctor (Cole Alexander Smith) injects some nanochips into
Adams (Craig Marker) in Wirehead.  (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Without wanting to give away any surprises, let me just say that the fully-staged production of Wirehead plays out much better than I anticipated from the reading I attended last December. Always a clever set designer when challenged by small spaces, Bill English has created a wonderful unit set that allows a radio shock jock named RIP (Scott Coopwood) to comment on technology's relentless march forward from the safety of his control booth. Meanwhile, Adams and Destry try to solve their personal and professional crises.

Susi Damilano has done a beautiful job of directing this nightmare of technology run amok. At the performance I attended, there was a post-performance talkback with Michael Anissimov, the Media Director for Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. While Mr. Anissimov very deftly spouted the appropriate (if not necessarily accurate) talking points, it quickly became obvious that the people questioning him -- most of whom were easily twice his age -- not only had much more life experience and wisdom beneath their belts, they also knew their facts a whole lot better than he did.

One of the more provocative pieces of theatre you'll see this year, Wirehead will have especially strong appeal to anyone who uses a computer on a daily basis. Performances continues at SFPlayhouse through April 23 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, here's the trailer:

No comments: