Can An Actress Teach a Robot to Feel? “Doctor Moloch” grapples with the question at Theatre Nova  

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

An impressionistic drawing of a robot hand and a human hand reaching out to touch, set against a blue background.

Detail from Theatre Nova's poster for Doctor Moloch.

In May of 2023, a group of researchers, engineers, and corporate executives at the Center for AI Safety warned of the existential danger of artificial intelligence (AI): “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” they wrote

Later that year, the Screen Actors Guild negotiated a new contract. In addition to wage issues, the actors were concerned that background roles would be created through AI and fewer actors would be employed. Most of the union’s demands were met, but the producers won the battle over keeping AI as an option.

Carla Milarch, whose play Doctor Moloch opens July 12 at Theatre Nova, absorbed all of this.  She also read articles by those who thought AI would enrich our lives and by people who believe there are pros and cons. [Read Pulp's profile of Milarch here.]

She couldn’t get the question out of her mind: Is AI a friend or foe? She thought about it while gardening. She thought about it while doing dishes. And a play began to take shape. “I have an idea bubbling, and characters, and then it takes on a life of its own,” she says of her writing process. 

That’s how her title character—a doctor created by artificial intelligence—was born.

In Doctor Moloch, a famous actress, replaced by AI, must find new work. In addition to doing live theater again, she takes a job teaching a robot doctor to feel.

“Doctor Moloch can detect cancer and read your genome and know what you’re thinking, but he can’t master human emotions,” Milarch explains. “In the course of the play, she [the actress] learns more about herself. He learns more about what it means to be human and, hopefully, we all do, too.”   

Director Briana O’Neal says the play is set five years into the future in the conference room of a lab.

“We wanted a twinge of futuristic small things,” she says. “We wanted to build little sci-fi elements into it.”

But she also wanted it to be close to our reality, just off enough to make audiences wonder.

“The characters can interact with a touchscreen monitor on the wall," O’Neal says. "One of the actors [the scientist who runs the lab] has an iPod permanently fused to him, and every time we see him he has a new [ technological gadget].”  

Milarch tried to infuse her three-character play with humor and humanity. She says the production blends low- and high-tech. She has imagined what Alexa might be five years into the future—Alexa is an offstage voice—and reports that scenic designer Paul Taylor has created “an almost kitschy, futuristic design that fits thematically.” 

“Serena [the actress] is a living, breathing human being. She is bright and vibrant,” says costume designer Marley Boone. She wears “a bright red beautiful dress and jewelry. Her dress has ruffles and shows movement. Her emotions are constantly changing so her dress is not restrictive.”

“Dr. Moloch looks like a real human being but he is emotionless,” adds Boone, who dressed him in a colorless gray suit. “Gray is associated with robots. ... There is not much range of mobility in his suit to show the limited range of his emotional capacity. ... He has a tie that has the binary code on it to show what he’s really made of.” 

The third character is driven by money. “He is very cold,” she says, explaining why she dressed him in blue.

O’Neal says the play that is on the surface a work of science fiction is “at its core about love and humanity.” 

The production is lit by Jeff Jeff Alder with sound by Kennikki Jones-Jones and properties by stage manager Carolyn Pierce. It features Shelby Bradley, Louie Chen, and Artun Kircali. Mady Thetard is the assistant director.

The play was picked up by the National New Playwrights Network, an alliance of professional theaters including Theatre Nova that “develop, produce, and extend the life of new plays.” The Unicorn Theatre, another NNPN member, will produce Doctor Moloch next year. 


Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.


"Doctor Moloch" by Carla Milarch will run at Theatre Nova, 410 West Huron Street, Ann Arbor, from ​July 12 to August 4. Visit theatrenova.org for tickets and showtimes.

Related:
"Theatre Nova's Carla Milarch has hopped through every level of theatrical life" [Pulp, July 5, 2024]