Donatella Soul and Arthur Wentworth in "American Carnage: A Love Story."
Think of the futuristic society portrayed in director/playwright Aimee Greenberg’s “American Carnage: A Love Story” not as a Utopia, but a Dystopia. It’s a bloodless, remote-control world where clouds and trees no longer exist, where art is confined to a “Museum of Obsolete Media,” where artificial intelligence moves inexorably toward the subjugation of humankind.
All this is implied more than shown in the world premiere of Greenberg’s one-act play staged by her fruitlessmoon theatreworks company at the City Heights Performance Annex. Augmented by screen projections, startling sound effects and a few props, the cast of eight in “American Carnage” can only represent a microcosm of what this intellectually ambitious work is trying to say in just one act. True, there is a tattooed, toga-clad ruler called Coleigula (pronounced if not spelled like the depraved Roman emperor) who presides over the privileged techno-world that’s in power. But looming over his repressions and his sickness (“We are committed to the repopulation of the Caucasians!”) is more global, indeed more universal, commentary about loss of freedom, individuality and sentient feelings.
It’s a tall order for 90 minutes of theater, and as such the narrative of “American Carnage: A Love Story” is delivered in mostly taut mini-scenes, periodically interrupted by cautionary reflections from Greenberg herself, as an unnamed cast member. This is not to say there aren’t focal characters. In fact, that’s where the love story comes in.
YML (Arthur Wentworth) is a hybrid robot/human who is – not his words – “cursed with curiosity.” This leads him from his assigned vector to the Badlands, where the dissipating number of humans reside. His own human side having been incited at the Museum of Obsolete Media by exposure to the likes of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Tony and Maria’s duet in “West Side Story,” YML makes an emotional connection with young Delilah (Alexandra Phillips), leading to his defying his creators, who would have her killed.
Yet YML’s quest and his fate are but a layer of an over-layered script that could benefit from some refining. Within the play’s sweep are declarations about survival of the fittest (complete with stand-in for a Galapagos tortoise), Darwin, and genetic experimentation (pig men onstage). While expecting more from a love story between a human and a hybrid droid may be in itself counterintuitive, it’s clear that the heart of “American Carnage” is YML himself. Or would that be itself?
Though somewhat restricted by the mere definition of his character, Wentworth is a sympathetic protagonist, particularly when he’s dabbing on his Pagliacci clown makeup or reciting for Delilah Tony’s half of “West Side Story’s” “Somewhere.” A few others in the ensemble wander toward performance-art territory, though that’s practically inescapable given the sharp pronouncements of the script and the stark Performance Annex setting.
Even with its exorbitance of statements about what the future of men, women and machines may hold, “American Carnage: A Love Story” is an intelligent new work, and there’s nothing artificial about that. (Review originally published 11/14/17 in San Diego Union-Tribune.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat