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CATF: Thomas Gibbons’ ‘Uncanny Valley’ is uncannily good

Written By | Jul 20, 2014
From L: Julian (Alex Podulke) and Claire (Barbara Kingsley).

From L: Julian (Alex Podulke) and Claire (Barbara Kingsley). (Credit: Seth Freeman)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 19, 2014 – Back in the late 1960s, science fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote a novel whose title posed a most interesting question: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1982, a script loosely based on Dick’s haunting tale came to life in “Blade Runner,” a now classic science fiction movie starring Harrison Ford.

That brilliant Ridley Scott film never quite answered Dick’s original query. But Thomas Gibbons’ bizarrely fascinating new play, “Uncanny Valley”—in a “rolling world premiere” CATF production involving two additional venues—gives Dick’s challenge a go. In the process, the playwright and the play get tantalizingly close to providing a speculative answer.

Although Dick’s novel, Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, and perhaps memories of “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” quizzical android, Lt. Commander Data may have served as touchstones for Mr. Gibbons’ new play as it evolved, its title is derived from an interesting hypothesis developed by a well known Japanese robotics professor named Masahiro Mori which, in 1970, he dubbed the “uncanny valley.”

Useful industrial robots familiar to us today look, feel and act like machines. The giant, sophisticated spot welders most automakers employ today are one familiar example. Closer to home, high tech housekeeping can be helped along by the latest edition of the round, floor-cleaning robot sold to retail customers as Roomba.

Mori, however, is referring to what even in the late 1960s was a growing tendency to experiment with robots that were constructed to look and feel and even respond like real human beings. As Mori investigated human reactions and interactions to these early prototypes, he formed a hypothesis about the curve of those human responses.

A Wikipedia excerpt provides a useful description of the hypothesis and the phenomenon:

“Mori’s original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some human observers’ emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a ‘barely human’ and ‘fully human’ entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly “strange” to some human beings, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.”

With that definition, we have what’s essentially the plot of Thomas Gibbons’ intriguing new, two-character drama, which is—intriguingly for a science fiction story—considerably more science than fiction. That’s an added plus, for it makes the entire chain of events seem far more real and extraordinarily plausible.

As the story arc unfolds, we witness firsthand the same “uncanny valley” behavioral curve taking place in the tentative, often haunting relationship that develops between the brilliant, aging neuroscientist Clare (Barbara Kingsley) and Julian (Alex Podulke) the humanoid robot she’s helping to create for a specific but mysterious purpose.

As the body parts of Julian are gradually added to his core structure, Clare must teach him how to move each limb in a human fashion. But all along, she’s focused on developing his computerized “mind” to think, act and react as a real human as well.

Julian is fully aware of his evolving situation, developing a curiosity and an intellect of his own at a rapid clip, aided of course by the computational power within him. And it’s clear that at some point in the process he does achieve self-awareness.

The crunch point in the human-android relationship developing between Clare and Julian requires us to provide what we think is a mild plot spoiler at this point, but this issue is key.

As Julian becomes fully functional as a “human being,” having learned appropriate behaviors, facial expressions, and bodily movements; and having achieved a surprising level of self-awareness and the personality that goes along with it, Clare must inform him that he’s due shortly in the lab where scientists there will fulfill the function for which he has been created: the neural network—thoughts, memories, relationships, intellect, reason, personality and even motor skills—of a powerful, wealthy older man who is dying but wishes to effectively live on, functioning fully as himself through this almost-human android constructed to look like him at the age of 35. Forever.

In short, Julian, the android, is the kind of immortality that the imperious, self-assured, but terminally ill human Julian can afford. The consequences of this miracle, however, are almost entirely unexpected.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Mr. Gibbons’ play is the almost radical sophistication of its intellectual content. Yes, the science here is somewhat simplified as it was in another brilliant science fiction vehicle, the film “Jurassic Park,” which simply but plausibly explained how a dinosaur might possibly be cloned as the action gradually unfolded.

Although Claire briefly alludes to the “uncanny valley” hypothesis at roughly the play’s midpoint, it’s she who actually goes through the experience with Julian. In the beginning, Claire functions almost like a mother to Julian’s child, patiently teaching him what he needs to know and clearly enjoying the experience with a genuine, palpable warmth of feeling.

But when the “real” Julian pays her, against lab protocol, a surprise after mind-transplant visit, confident, strong, and somewhat arrogant in his new personality, Claire is suddenly horrified, revolted and enraged. Ultimately, this oddest of odd couple is forced to reason things out to discover who “Julian” now really is.

At this point, the play becomes considerably more philosophical and poignant in the process as Claire reveals some dark and tragic secrets of her own.

We can’t go further because it would spoil the emotion- and brain-busting exhilaration and sadness that most will encounter if they choose to pick up a ticket for this extraordinary play.

Lest we neglect the individuals who make the magic happen in “Uncanny Valley,” a big hat tip to the small cast and large supporting staff behind this fine production.

As Claire, Barbara Kingsley walks a fine line between emotional warmth and professional coldness, finding it difficult and sometimes unbearable to achieve a synthesis between the two. Her Claire is at once an Everyman and a real human being tentatively perched on the edge of an almost-realizable science with bio-ethical consequences that few if any of us are prepared to face.

Even better, though she’s a seasoned and respected scientist, Claire is also a human female whose mothering instincts are but imperfectly thwarted by the scientific method, making her journey through the “uncanny valley” that more personal and fraught with danger and complexity. Ms. Kingsley embodies all of this and more in her fine performance.

Equally outstanding is Alex Podulke as Julian, the uncanny android. The sensitivity and subtlety of his acting skills are perhaps at their finest early in the play as he learns to adapt his robotic and initially inert facial features and expressive abilities to the point where his reactions can become recognizably human.

But Mr. Podulke’s ability to rapidly evolve his character is impressive as well, as his consciousness and self-awareness—and interactive intellect—all come into play in an almost alarmingly convincing way.

It is ultimately Julian 2, not Clair, who comes to realize that in his robotic form he is a computerized yet humanized Holy Trinity, Julian the android, Julian the human and Julian the composite of both—an existential dilemma no entity on earth has yet confronted and a puzzle will be confronting as they leave the performance.

Jesse Dreikosen’s neat, spare, almost antiseptic set provides a setting that gives of the aura of a science lab while allowing the human element to dominate. John Ambrosone’s atmospheric lighting and Michael McKowen’s video work enhance the scene further. (And don’t forget to take an occasional look at the theater curtain as you take your seat.)

Director Tom Dugdale takes this all in hand, putting the elements together to create a natural unnatural atmosphere that’s at once spooky and all-too-human while allowing his splendid two-person cast to remain the focus at all times as indeed they must be.

In an age where so many novelists, script writers, and playwrights can’t resist an impulse to oversimplify or dumb down material for the audience or insert a needless mini-sermon to make sure their point is taken, Mr. Gibbons lays out a veritable litany of social and scientific dilemmas and leaves his audience to puzzle them out for themselves. His is a play that makes the audience work. If taken in the right spirit, that work can be gratifying indeed.

“Uncanny Valley” is a real paradox. It’s about as egg-heady and nerdy as a play can get, something that’s not an easy sell in a post-MTV era where emotions dominate and where reason is generally checked at the door. But in this drama, the author’s presentation, characters, and mind-bending human puzzles can awaken a latent intellect or a dormant reasoning capacity in a way we’ve rarely seen in any performing art format form in recent memory, save, perhaps, for Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the other works we’ve mentioned previously.

Over the years, CATF founder and producing director Ed Herendeen has tirelessly insisted on characterizing this festival as the home of “think theater.” We’d observe that out of all the okay-to-wonderful plays we’ve seen in Shepherdstown over the years, only a select few have hit the “think theater” mark as thoroughly and effectively as Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley.”

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)


“Uncanny Valley” by Thomas Gibbons will be performed in repertory through August 3, 2014 at CATF. Consult the information below for festival particulars and links.

Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is derived from CATF’s Release:

Matinee and evening performances are held Wednesday – Sunday throughout the Festival at a variety of times and venues. Single ticket prices to the 2014 repertory are $59. Four-show and five-show subscription discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $100-$240. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 & under, and West Virginia residents.

Performance tickets can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting

For the official schedule, visit

Complete season information – including playwright bios, promotional images and headshots, schedule, past production photos, videos, and ticketing – is available at Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at and

Getting there: It all depends on where you life. Marylanders and DC denizens will likely head out to Shepherdstown via the Beltway, I-270, I-70 plus a few turns on local roads in the general vicinity of Hagerstown before crossing the Potomac. All plays will be staged at venues not far from the bridge crossing.

Virginia residents will likely head out via the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to the VA-7 Leesburg bypass and then to VA-WV-9 to the Shepherdstown turnoff. But other routes may also work.

Check the CATF web site for further details, or program your GPS for the theater location you need. Or visit CATF’s “Getting There” info at

Dining and lodging: If you plan on getting the ticket package for the entire Festival, call now and check the CATF general website above for dining and lodging suggestions. NOTE: Shepherdstown has a surprising number of first-rate restaurants, but they tend to get jammed during the Festival. Reservations are HIGHLY suggested.



Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17