Theater Review: BIG DATA (American Conservatory Theatre)

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by Chuck Louden on February 28, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

In the 21st century with the advancement of social media, anyone has the ability to be the star of their own reality show. Communicating with friends, expressing personal politics or even showing pictures of your dinner can be fodder for news or conversation. Several years into the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) reality can be enhanced or embellished. Where does it stop? Such is the concept of Big Data now playing at American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T).

Gabriel Brown (Sam)

Playwright Kate Attwell is presenting a modern day tale of A.I. and the influence of tech possibly gone wild. We are presented with two couples. Couple One is Max (Jomar Tagatac) and Lucy (Rosie Hallet). He is a stay-at-home unemployed writer. She is moving on up the corporate ladder and the breadwinner. They are theoretically together as a couple but their personal struggles are with themselves. Almost in a narcissistic way, their existential dilemmas are all about themselves.

Jomar Tagatac (Max) and BD Wong (M)

A charismatic figure, M (A.C.T. famous alumni and local native BD Wong), seems to suddenly appear in their living room. Is he a trusted friend? Confidant? Or is he a manifestation of their egos. He comes across as all-knowing and sympathetic. He almost seems to be whispering individually to each of them to follow their dreams and move forward. The audience is left wondering if he’s a real person or some kind of artificial intelligence bot.

BD Wong (M) and Gabriel Brown (Sam)

We then are introduced to Sam (Gabriel Brown) who is Lucy’s brother who is in love with his partner Timmy (Michael Phillis). They are both successful “Power Gays” moving on up with their careers and social lives. Like Lucy and Max, though they are both self-absorbed, reflecting on their own status and upward mobility.   M appears to them in the form of an online hookup, encouraging both men to give in to their hedonistic desires. He’s quirky, handsome, funny and seemingly all knowing. Is he real or just an online fantasy?

BD Wong (M)

Act II shifts the action from the brightly lit and sparsely furnished set to the overcrowded ad cluttered living room of Lucy and Sam’s childhood home where both couples gather to see their parents Joe (Harold Surratt) and Didi (Julia McNeal). Mom and Dad have a big announcement that can change or alter the course of everyone’s destiny.

BD Wong (M), Michael Phillis (Timmy), and Gabriel Brown (Sam)

Is the show a spoof on society’s current obsession of artificial intelligence, or a cautionary tale? As with many A.C.T. productions, issues and questions with no easy answers are presented leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Julia McNeal (Didi) and Harold Surratt (Joe)

The actors in the ensemble give it their all and each one has their moment to shine in either self-reflection or living with their existential angst. The “Star” B.D. Wong seems to have the most fun with his colorful, all-knowing character. Is he real, the devil or just the manifestation of all the other characters egos gone wild?

Gabriel Brown (Sam), Rosie Hallett (Lucy), and Michael Phillis (Timmy)

Pam Mackinnon’s direction lets all the characters express their hopes, dreams and selfish desires. There is no “hero” in this show. All the characters are playing out their own personal dramas.  A.I. leaves everyone believing that anything is possible: real or not.

Jomar Tagatac (Max) and Michael Phillis (Timmy)

Tanya Orellana’s scenic design and Kaitlyn Petras & Jason H. Thompson’s production design features two fantastic sets that create a futuristic backdrop for the anything-is-possible set in the first act as well as a quaint and cozy home for the second. Russell H.Champa’s lighting design creates fantastic special effects for all the screen and camera angles to help create the futuristic world of A.I.

The cast of Big Data

BD Wong appeared to be the main attraction in this latest show from A.C.T.  This local boy has made a successful career in television. It’s delightful to have him back home, even if only for this very odd visit.

photos by Kevin Berne

Big Data
A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theatre, 415 Geary Street in San Francisco
ends on March 10, 2024
for tickets ($25-$130), call 415-749-2228 or visit A.C.T.

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