Alan Turing has been enjoying quite a run in the past couple years, what with the movie The Imitation Game copping an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Benedict Cumberbatch setting hearts a-flutter as the introverted and closeted Turing.
Sure, Turing probably saved more Allied lives than any other single human being during World War II, by using his primitive yet powerful computational machine to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code. But his other enduring legacy is as the father of the modern computer.
This is the part that fascinates Jeremy Paul and Ray Caspio, the authors of The Turing Machine, now having a short run produced by Theater Ninjas. With Paul directing and Caspio the only performer, the show is tight and often captivating.
However, the premise of the play presents a difficulty. The playwrights want to focus more on the Turing machine (his computer) rather than the man. Granted, this is an interesting intellectual exercise: Does such an intelligent machine think? Does it have a spirit, a soul? Or is it just matter. And (as the play itself wonders) does that even matter? Is it only humans who can be the subject of their own thoughts, or will machines be able to do that? Intriguing stuff.
The trouble arises from the fact that the audience is made up of carbon-based life forms that naturally gravitate to other human beings. We want to know their stories. Perhaps when computers can arrange their own transportation and go out for an evening and see a play, they will be more interested in the machine.
Some of the fiercely intelligent 90-minute script whips by at a blindingly rapid broadband pace, leaving those in the audience who are still at dial-up listening speed lost in the connectivity dust. The non-linear script touches on aspects of Turing’s life, and even deigns to give some direct exposition about his life—from his birth in 1912 to his fairytale-inspired suicide by poisoned apple in 1954.
The production is quite handsome, with engaging projections flashed on 13 mini-screens and across the whole set, designed by T. Paul Lowry. And the electronic sound design by Eric M. Gonzalez punctuates many moments effectively.
Unfortunately the play’s biggest asset, Ray Caspio, is a bit camouflaged in Paul’s direction. He is often hidden in shadows, peering through a gas mask, or speaking while not looking at the audience. Sure, we get that we’re supposed to be more interested in the computer, but it’s hard to relate to a disembodied voice and some projected flashes of computer innards. Caspio is a riveting, often almost magical performer, and it’s a shame he has to take a back seat in a show where he is the only person on stage.
The play makes the point that Enigma was broken due to human behavior: The Nazis insisted on beginning their daily messaging with obligatory “Heil Hitlers,” and that allowed the code breakers at Bletchley Park to get a starting point for their efforts. In a similar way, the humans in the audience pose a challenge for this play. That is, we have a fatal flaw, we want to know about people, not machines.
One hopes the fertile and innovative minds at Theater Ninjas will find a way, as they continue their search, to exploit that particular human quirk and use it to explore the compelling ideas at work in this play.
The Turing Machine
Through this Sunday, May 24, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., theaterninjas.com.