THEATER REVIEW: “The Chinese Room” @ Williamstown Theatre Festival [Berkshire on Stage]
Theater review by Macey Levin
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda, the wizard Prospero’s teen-age daughter, upon seeing men other than her father for the first time, says, “Brave new world that has such people in ‘t.” Prospero responds, “’Tis new to thee.” The world premiere of Michael West’s play The Chinese Room currently at the Williamstown Theatre Festival explores a probable new world for the 21st century.
It is believed that in time computers will be virtually human; not only will they be able to think but also feel. The Chinese Room was part of an experiment by John Searles in opposition to this theory of artificial intelligence. An English-speaking subject would be placed in a room with several batches of Chinese writings and symbols with instructions in English. The subject would “translate” the material into English. A party outside the room, reading the translation, would think the subject actually knew Chinese. The intent was to show that one can be trained to do and say things but would not have intrinsic knowledge of what he or she was actually doing and, in all probability, did not have the emotional structure possessed by humans.
In the play, Frank McClintock (Brian F. O’Byrne) is fighting with the use of electronic devices, including holograms and the Cloud, to maintain power over the firm he founded while facing an attempt to wrest control from him by his old friend Hal. He is determined to keep all the firm’s information so that he can use it to return his wife Lily (Laila Robins), who is suffering from dementia, to the woman she was before her mind started to deteriorate. After rebooting Susannah (Sue Jean Kim), a droid he created, urging his son Zack (Elliot Trainor) to go to bed and then placating the confused Lily, Frank is visited by Daniel (Carson Elrod), another droid he designed, who has been sent by the firm to retrieve all the records and devices in Frank’s possession. Daniel is focused on his assignment and has no regard for Frank’s pleas or emotional state. Thus begins the drama of the exploration of the Chinese Room theory.