Futuristic plays provoke us to examine our lives, identify what is most important to us, and make us philosophical. One of the earlier examples of artificial intelligence on screen for me was Data, the android from Star Trek the Next Generation. The character Data the android endeared himself to me for his bewilderment at human behavior that he either hadn’t yet learned or simply couldn’t learn. Data the android evolved over time from one who had difficulty with different aspects of human behavior to one who eventually gained a better understanding. Throughout his wisdom resulted from processing enormous amounts of data. His perspective and his observations as a nonhuman were thought-provoking for us humans. And, for that reason, he will remain as one of my two favorite characters. My other Star Trek favorite was a biological human, Jean-Luc Picard, equal if not superior in wisdom, acquired from years of experience. That quality and his unimpeachable integrity placed him, at least for me, at the pinnacle of humanity.
I found myself thinking of these matters as I watched Marjorie Prime on July 20, 2019, at the Lohman theater at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. Marjorie Prime by playwright Jordan Harrison was performed by Naatak theater company. It was directed by Harish Agastya who has previously directed the political satire Muavze among other Naatak plays.
The play is set in the year 2062, where the 85-year-old Marjorie, whose memory is fading, has a dashing young companion. He is Walter Prime, the 30-year-old artificial (and intelligent) version of her late husband, Walter. Anush Moorthy plays the holographic Walter Prime, who learns more and more about the real, late Walter from conversations with Marjorie, her daughter Theresa and son-in-law Javed. The more Walter Prime learns, the more effective he is in telling the old stories to Marjorie, helping her keep her memories. Moorthy is a pleasant companion and easy on the eyes, and like Data the android on the screen, strikes a good balance of robotic monotony and human engagement.
Marjorie is played by Ranjita Chakravarty, an accomplished actor who has been in several Naatak productions, including Rashomon. She is a pleasure to watch on stage. Her expressive face kept me captivated as she switched between imperiousness, impatience, laughter, wit, sadness and the enjoyment and deep pleasure offered by music.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is the soundtrack to the play, its gorgeousness and variety well-suited, from the joyous Spring to the pensive and melancholy Winter. In the winter of her life, as more and more things slip away from her mind, Marjorie still remembers the violinist she was.
Marjorie’s daughter Theresa, played by Mugdha Kulkarni, has a difficult relationship with her mother. Kulkarni is impressive in how completely she sheds this tension at a later point in the play, which I will not describe further, so as to not give away too much of the plot.
Theresa’s husband Javed is the perfect foil to the tension she carries around. Javed, played by M. Zishan, is kind, good-humored and jovial, indeed an enjoyable presence on stage.
They talk of Indian food and restaurants, spinach dishes with too much ghee, and dogs named Idlee. The “desification” here is welcome, and I’m glad the director Harish Agastya made that choice. (In Naatak’s production of Proof, I struggled a bit with the absence of desification, and have mused abut that in a write-up here.)
I watched the play with my 86-year-old father. My father is a little hard of hearing; he was not able to hear all the lines in the play, and mentioned that having seen it, he might have liked to read the script. He is a year older now than Marjorie in 2062, but his memory is impeccable. He remembers the birthdays of everyone in the family, cousins, second cousins and all, sometimes even remembering the day of the week when they were born! Unbelievable to me. Perhaps that is how a mathematical brain works: he is one that has composed code decades ago in now-unused languages, and tackled mainframe computers that occupied entire rooms. Some of the exhibits in The Computer History Museum are his old friends. [An example of his meticulousness: once, many years ago, I gifted my father a small hand-held calculator. One day, I saw him performing some computation on it, and then apparently doing it again manually in his notebook. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was checking if the calculator was correct! Cracks me up every time I think about it.]
My mother suffered from dementia in her final year, and struggled with her memory. I have her smile, her hands, her voice and her laugh. I am gripped by a sense of foreboding when I strain to remember names, or forget why I walked into a room. Even as I wonder if I will lose my mind in the decades to come, I find myself hoping that I have my father’s memory. Fingers crossed!
And now to chide the audience. Before the play began, director Harish Agastya made it a point to ask everyone to turn their cell phone ringers.
He even took out his own phone and turned off the sound, giving everyone a few moments to do exactly the same, mentioning that there’s always one cell phone that rings during the play. And sure enough. There was one person, seated just a few feet from me, whose phone rang at a critical juncture, just as the play was ending. It was at the worst time imaginable, ruining the poignant and beautiful ending, just as Marjorie says “How nice that we could love somebody.”
Seriously. Turn off your phones, people. And check one or two times that you actually did. It’s worth the time. Out of respect for the actors and for the audience. This production is most certainly worthy of a lot of respect.