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Big Ideas, and Big Chaos from the Algorithm, in 'Big Data' at ACT

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(L–R) BD Wong (M), Michael Phillis (Timmy), and Gabriel Brown (Sam) in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s 'Big Data,' running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. (Kevin Berne)

There is a specific and toxic level of melancholia that comes with modern life.

Certainly, having the world at one’s literal fingertips makes for infinite possibilities. No longer do archaic fossils of culture dominate society — think about the last time you needed to buy a concert or sports ticket in person, or when you last sat in a bookstore reading a novel or magazine with pages that required physical turning.

Today, phones, tablets or a trusty laptop provide every creature comfort known to humanity, and tech’s capabilities expand with each new update. But at what cost? Are we, in our yearning for more knowledge with blaring rapidity, simply feeding the beast? Frailty, thy name is algorithm!

BD Wong (M) in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s ‘Big Data,’ running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. (Kevin Berne)

In playwright Kate Attwell’s world premiere of Big Data, commissioned and presented by American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, modern society’s horrors take the form of the dastardly-yet-dashing “M” (B.D. Wong), an automated puppet master who readily loads his subjects with thoughts and ideas that veer from inspired to toxic. “M” is random as all get out – knocking on stranger’s doors to simply hang out, seducing a young man and offering pleasures of the flesh, and subtly convincing an older couple that their time on this Earth has surpassed its useful life.

Director Pam MacKinnon’s meticulous attention to detail provides effective, steady subtlety inside Attwell’s staccato-ish dialogue. Occasionally, the script has a propensity to drone into one-note, ineffective territory, especially within stretches of the first act. This is not a fault of the cast, which is universally terrific. Both Sam (Gabriel Brown) and Timmy (Michael Phillis) are handsome, married millennials whose polyamorous dealings veer outside of simple physicality. Those invited inside their velvet, lustful ropes didn’t plan for the baggage of loneliness that both carry.

(L–R) Gabriel Brown (Sam), Rosie Hallett (Lucy), and Michael Phillis (Timmy) in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s ‘Big Data,’ running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. (Kevin Berne)

Likewise, a sense of unease persists between medical professional Lucy (Rosie Hallett) and husband Max (Jomar Tagatac). While Lucy easily gives every ounce of herself to big tech, her cell phone notifications going off incessantly, Max is much more concerned with old school natural dangers like earthquakes and flooding. Together, the mix of infertility, home economics and large loans turn the couple into carbon and oxygen balls of mass agita.


The distinct nature of each act is intentional. Whereas the first act establishes five characters, all with their own issues, the second introduces two new characters entirely, revealing the ways in which the aforementioned folks connect. As the older parentals, Didi (Julia McNeal) and her husband Joe (Harold Surratt) don’t carry the same relationship to tech as their younger counterparts, but are nonetheless affected mightily by its constant presence.

Didi and Joe refuse to succumb to the new vanguard without a fight, thanks to Joe’s gargantuan cement truck that creates a physical barrier to the tech devices they’re actively shunning. (That smart thermometer is no match for concrete.)

Gabriel Brown (Sam) in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s ‘Big Data,’ running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. (Kevin Berne)

While no one would advocate the play’s denouement, there is something poetic about Didi and Joe’s choices. Technology will always move forward, yet at a time when the human mind is challenged more than ever by the artificial world, human expendability is on the table in unforeseen ways. To those who make art their life’s work, putting random words into a machine and having poetry and music returned with soaring fidelity is horrifying.

Each performer takes turns as the representation of societal strife. Tagatac, an ACT favorite, brings forth a skittish freneticism that parallels our divisive times. Hallett, whose listening skills are uncanny, engages sharply with Tagatac and advocates for her character’s neurosis with resonance. Brown and Phillis carry the responsibility of establishing the narrative’s style, handling many of the play’s funniest moments due to their honesty. And McNeal, along with Surratt and his dopey, everyman quality, delivers critical information with searing truth, magically making her case about the world’s artificiality and what it means to her generation.

As a primary strength, Big Data advocates that the absurd really isn’t that absurd at all. Back in the day, we just knew how to breathe. Now, there’s an app for that. Even while Attwell’s dialogue is often sly, characters don’t speak with wonderment and discovery, and instead with mechanical precision. Each of the first act’s scene changes are soulless jaunts, moving from one reality to the next, within Tanya Orellana’s broad, barren scenic design. A completely different world appears in the second act — brought upon by the charming Wong as he gleefully pops and prances all over the place, sporting many fun costume changes borne of Lydia Tanji’s design.

BD Wong (M) and Gabriel Brown (Sam) in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s ‘Big Data,’ running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. (Kevin Berne)

At the end of the day, what messages are we sending to certain generations? Your dollar bill is worthless, and so is that change in your pocket, because it’s all about cash-free zones and cryptocurrency now. How about some soulless poetry or music from Chat GPT? Is this where society is headed? Are we just birds programmed to eat, drink, even play piano on command? How does one even do that?

Let me guess – there’s an app for that.

‘Big Data’ runs through Sunday, March 10, at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater in San Francisco. Details and ticket info here.

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