In a play about 400-ton robots, the kaiju fights in “I Build Giants” are between ideas, not machines. Yet even these battles, as we see, end up trampling bystanders underfoot. Ryan Stevens’ play, directed by Christina Casano, takes the mecha-suit genre and turns it into a soft sci-fi parable about whether it’s possible to responsibly bring something new into the world, with its robots standing in for revolutionary technologies vulnerable to co-optation.
Central to the play is the push and pull between the Engineer (Song Marshall), the Technician (Madison Hill), and the Executive (Carina Lastimosa). Utilitarian descriptors indicate that these characters will stand in for fundamental social forces, and the cast does an excellent job enlivening these characters from within their types. The Engineer invents the giant robots, called “Gossamers,” to address scientific, structural, environmental and humanitarian issues. Yet after proudly unveiling her creation to the world, the Technician, an anti-establishment fugitive scientist, reaches out to chastise her for such cockeyed optimism. They believe the Engineer is a fool for releasing the Gossamers, too arrogant to see the imminent consequences. Governments will inevitably misallocate them, the military will use them as walking artillery, while the public will just see them as new toys. The Technician is proven right as soon as the Executive comes along to offer unlimited funding and resources in exchange for allowing weapons manufacturers access to the Gossamer technology.
The central conflicts are among these three giants, yet the text often plays favorites with particular perspectives in a way that leaves deeper exploration on the table. Parables are meant to have strong moral imperatives, but the text’s rich subject matter makes its preferred conclusions appear like oversights.
The Executive, our patron saint of profit motive, is the most obvious example. I don’t need to tell you that war profiteering is a strong zero out of five stars, but the text’s attitude toward the human motivations behind this feels oversimplified. The Executive is written as aggressively unpleasant, so the characters and audience write her off easily. The play refuses to use the Executive as an abyss that can look back at us, so while she’s an entertainingly despicable presence (some delightful staging involving a rolling office chair comes to mind), she’s a caricature of an inner darkness we don’t have to recognize.
The Engineer is a utopian, and the Technician a dystopian. Their interactions brim with the play’s most engaging reflections on technology’s social impact, and Song and Madison have great chemistry as affectionate rivals. Theirs is a battle between the Jurassic Park Principle and the Spider-Man Principle. In other words, Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, yet if you’re the only one who can, shouldn’t you? However, the text behaves like a bad parent and has a clear favorite: the Technician. They get to win the most arguments, possess the most accurate insights, be the most competent person in every room, and fail with mild suffering followed by swift forgiveness. Not so for the Engineer. The text constantly punishes her for believing she can keep perfect control over her creations once they’re public. The Technician, however, shares an equally naive belief that their technology can stay pure once put directly into the people’s hands—and bodies. When they assert that their biology-modifying tech will definitely not result in eugenics under their careful watch, the text gives the Engineer no retort.
Underneath these giants’ feet are our more humanized characters, the Astronaut (Nicolette de Guia), the Monitor (Clara Byczkowski), the Volunteer (Julia Stemper), and the Ace (Lexy Hope Weixel). These individuals show the effects of new technology in more human terms through attitude and exploitation.
The relationship between the Astronaut and the Monitor is the sweet, beating heart behind the sociology and comes the closest to putting the play’s ideas into relatable human terms. Technology can inspire awe, yet also fear for what it might do to our loved ones. The Ace and the Volunteer are exploited end-users. The immature Ace delights in using the Gossamers for personal empowerment, gushing about being an underage pilot on social media, itself once a promising paradigm shift—and look how that turned out. The Volunteer just wants to live a decent quiet life with the help of the Technician’s body-modifying technology, but realizes too late that tech is never neutral. It connects and implicates you, whether you want it to or not.
“I Build Giants” is an ambitious play that wants to engage complex discussions, and is worth celebrating for that, even with this reviewer’s nit-pickery. It’s a problem with no clear right outcome. The Technician admits that whether the Gossamers were given to the government, the public or private interests, it doesn’t matter. Their corruption was inevitable. Maybe the Engineer should have kept it to herself. But if we hope to create a better future, perhaps the real question isn’t whether we could or should, but how we can keep trying.
“I Build Giants” at the Edge Off-Broadway Theater, 1133 West Catalpa. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, starting at $5, via theplagiarists.org. Through May 8.