Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Code: Preludes, Theater Ninjas

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with math. In my case, it was a hate-hate affair until I read the immersive novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson some 15 years ago. That book, bristling with mathematical and internet complexity, somehow fascinated the brain inside my skull that had formerly detested anything even vaguely connected to math.

This devised play, like Stephenson’s yarn, is designed as an enveloping experience, centered around a software company that is finalizing work on a breakthrough, self-learning program called Karnak (named after the ancient religious site or Johnny Carson’s bumbling soothsayer? You decide).

One of the leading code-heads Jac (an often compelling Valerie C. Kilmer) is trying to perfect the software before it goes public, but the company president sets a firm deadline, throwing all the programmers into a tizzy (often represented by the actors running around in circles or leaping through the air).

However, the fairly simple plotline is embellished with a torrent of tech-speak, often rattled off at high speed. This may give less-than-savvy audience members the feeling that they’ve stumbled into a college class for which they are woefully unprepared.

In addition to Kilmer, the company of actors, which varies widely in ability, includes Ray Caspio, Christina Dennis, Christopher Hisey, Val Kozlenko, Aimee Liu, Ryan Lucas, Michael Prosen and Sean Seibert. Caspio stands out in his monologue later in the show; it seems he could read a description of the Heartbleed bug backwards and still be riveting. 

Fortunately there are several breaks during the 90-minute piece when the audience is invited to roam around the large, dimly-lit basement space in the 78th St. Studios building and observe content-related stations that have been set up. Some are quite interesting, such as the Alan Turing gallery where the words of that revolutionary math guru and World War II code breaker are displayed. That gallery sits adjacent to a recreation of Turing’s Bletchley Park office, nicely detailed with puzzles and accompanied by period radio tunes.

Other displays are just mystifying: a barricaded room with junk inside, a man rambling on about binary code while playing with a waist-high sandbox, a space draped in plastic called Cloud 9 (“Where you can be whoever you want to be”)

Indeed, much of the Code experience is like that. Impenetrable declarations (“Science is a differential equation”) interspersed with sophomoric feel-good maxims (“Humanity should not be defined by its limits”)

In a piece that takes itself too seriously (unlike the Ninjas’ previous and more successful devised experience The Excavation, and unlike the hilarious programmer-centered show Silicon Valley now on HBO) there are few humorous moments. One, when the too-busy-to-eat Jac is surrounded by dreams of food, swarming to the tune of a Journey ditty, is quite amusing. And the ending of the entire piece has a wonderful wry twist.

This is an expansive and boldly imaginative production, and for that it earns serious kudos. However, much of this excursion into the mathematical unknown, as directed by the pathologically-inventive Jeremy Paul, is sensory overload. That feeling is accentuated by four monitors that interact with the actors and omnipresent electronic music and audio effects. Put it all together and you have a sporadically interesting but frequently frustrating theatrical kludge.

Of course, that may be exactly what the TN creators want since they aver, in mission statements that adorn the walls, that this production is just the embryonic beginning of a much longer exploration into the subject. Indeed, the title reflects that objective.

If so, one hopes that further iterations of this experience will be more accessible to the average attendee and less smugly superior. And perhaps it could be built—at least in part—around characters with some human depth, instead of the blips and bleeps of their dense and private vernacular. In other words,  break the code. Mr. Turing would approve.

Code: Preludes
Through May 18, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th St. Studios, 1300 W. 78th St.,

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