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marjorie prime at ensemble: how we cope with fear and loss

This image: Lucy Bell, Richard Sydenham.
Featured image: Maggie Dence, Jake Speer and Lucy Bell.                                                                                  Production photos by Lisa Tomasetti

Today, as we look into the future, we are sharing the increasingly sophisticated technologies involving artificial intelligence and robots.  Could they be therapeutic?  Are they truly capable of equaling or out-smarting human intelligence?  Will they ever comprehend human emotion?

Talented American playwright, Jordan Harrison, wrote his play MARJORIE PRIME to question these ideas of artificial intelligence.  First produced in LA in 2014, it was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The film adaptation premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, starring John Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins.  Harrison also wrote three seasons of the Netflix drama, ‘Orange Is The New Black’.

The play is set in the future, somewhere around 2050. 85 year-old mother, Marjorie, (Maggie Dence), is staying at the home of her daughter, Tess, (Lucy Bell), and Tess’ husband of three decades, Jon, (Richard Sydenham).  Also living with them is Walter Prime, (Jake Speer).  Marjorie’s husband, Walter, died 15 years ago and, as Marjorie is showing signs of the early onset of dementia, a handsome, 30 year-old replica (meticulously contracted by a company called ‘Senior Serenity’, who make what is known as a Prime), has been brought into the house to keep her company, re-trigger her fading and confused memories and share precious moments with Marjorie.

Walter Prime’s accuracy is dependent upon the human that feeds him the information.  Tech-savvy Jon enjoys this role, passing on the historical family facts.  He muses, “It’s amazing what they can do with a few zillion pixels”.

The choice of Walter Prime disturbs Tess.  She doesn’t trust the system’s functionalities and refuses to talk to Walter.  Although at times it can be difficult to determine the emotional connection between the characters, the sense of grief and sadness carried by Tess and Marjorie begins to show and layers the play with human frailty and vulnerability.

Jon passes on to Walter a dark family secret.  Marjorie’s son and Tess’ brother, Damien, committed suicide forty years earlier, taking with him their beloved family dog, their second black poodle, Tony ll.  Because of this, Marjorie had not mentioned Damien since, until she brought his name up in a dementia outburst.

Intrinsically about futuristic technology, the play is primarily about how we, as humans, cope with fear and loss.  Loss of father, son, husband and brother and family dog.  Also, loss of Marjorie, the mother Tess has always known, and for Marjorie herself, to dementia.

It is obvious by Director Mitchell Butel’s philosophical program notes that he loves and respects this play.  This comes across in the production.

Dence brings wonderful light and shade, darkness and humour to her role.  Her vast talent and experience carry a contagious sense of effortlessness to the stage.   

Bell brings an intriguing sense of depth and mystery to her character.  She fights against the undercurrents of despair, depression and instability with dignity.

Sydenham gives us a Jon who is essentially the light-hearted messenger, until he changes and shows us his vulnerable side later in the play.

Speer effectively charms the audience with his good-natured nonchalance and his charismatic presence.

The set and costume design by Simon Greer is an interesting mix of past and future.  A 60s ‘modernist’ kind of set. Graceful, minimalist and functional.

Lighting by Alexander Berlage is excellent and striking in colour.  Sound by Thomas Moore and composition by Max Lyandvert both enhance the atmosphere.

MARJORIE PRIME is a refreshingly different and stimulating play.  Definitely “food for thought” – with clever dialogue and future references not too grand to swallow.

MARJORIE PRIME plays at the Ensemble Theatre [Facebook] from June 23rd to July 21st, 2018.

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