If you follow the news, or at least scroll through your Facebook feed, you've probably seen stories about artificial skin that can sense pressure, electric taste simulation, or maybe even the use of electrical signals to the brain to mimic the sense of touch. We’re still in the early days of such technology, but in Elizabeth A.M. Keel’s Override, a character has already gotten so specific you can choose between sensations like “taking off your heels after a long day at work,” or a “not angry but disappointed” shoulder grasp.
Override opens in the midst of a crisis anyone who’s ever stayed up all night working against a deadline can recognize. It’s the night before Louise, a student at the Academy of Invention, is due to present her, well, invention – a machine that replicates touch. And it’s not working quite right. Struggling with the machine, Louise catches the attention of her new temporary roommate, Grav, a fellow student at the Academy. Grav is a legacy, the son of a robot builder turned CEO of a global empire. His dorm recently burned down, forcing him to take the spare room in Louise’s apartment. Though not friends, barely acquaintances, and pretty different, Louise is forced to ask Grav for help. Their tenuous partnership leads to some good ole fashioned personality clashes and some serious questions about the power of human touch.
If you’ve caught wind of Override before now, you’ve probably seen the terms “sci-fi” and “rom-com” used to describe it – terms that are useful for quick reference, but woefully lacking. It’s certainly humorous, but “sci-fi” and “rom-com” don’t really express all that Keel is able to convey in her story. Override is a surprisingly gentle exploration of something we may easily take for granted – touch – in the context of a not-so-distant piece of tech and the budding relationship between these two characters, Louise and Grav. Watching their first steps toward connection with each other is sweet, as Keel clearly has a lot of affection for these two, but just as compelling are the broader themes Keel is able to weave through her script (along with less explored but present themes like gender and privilege).
If the clock on the wall can be trusted, Keel’s hour-long script takes place roughly between 11 p.m. and midnight. The conceit, an hour of real time with these characters, is used well. Her adherence to naturalism can further be seen in the fact that Keel is unafraid of silence, the all-too-familiar lulls in conversation we all experience (and endure) present here, too.
Keel’s play proves to be in good hands with director Bree Bridger, who displays a clear understanding of the piece. It is expertly helmed and carefully paced. If it’s not clear, Override is a two-hander, and Keel and Bridger are lucky to have to such strong actors playing Louise and Grav.
Early on, Grav refers to Louise as “wild,” and there is a wonderfully unrestrained energy that Joanna Hubbard brings to the character, as well as a fearlessness in committing to the required physicality. Hubbard’s Louise is stressed, and almost frenzied at times, not to mention prone to arguing, overstepping, and kicking. But she also has an ease about her, a comfort with herself that contrasts well with the lack of comfort Grav has in his own skin.
Grav is a character who, admittedly, is quite familiar with robot jokes made at his expense, and Scott Searles is socially awkward as heck in the role. He averts his eyes, gestures mechanically, and carries a certain stiffness and tension in his performance all without letting Grav become a caricature befitting The Big Bang Theory. As the hour ticks along, “late-night, unplugged Grav” (as Louise calls him) appears, with Searles allowing more and more of Grav’s vulnerability to show through, as well as his desire for more – more companionship, more human connection, more touch – to show through, too.
Krystal Uchem costumed the characters with an eye toward the ways in which they contrast with each other. Hubbard’s wardrobe is relaxed, wide-leg jeans and a loose halter top, while Searles is outfitted in a matching dark blue pajama set, his trusty fanny pack (or as Grav calls it, “inventor kit”) holstered along his side.
Abi Harris, who bore the responsibility for props, deserves a special shout-out for Louise’s touch sim helmet, a repurposed black bicycle helmet adorned with a jumble of wires, ethernet cables and spiral phone cords that flashes every color of the rainbow. And sound designer John Peeples lends the production its own techie soundscape, though the mood music that leads into the production is a touch too ominous for what actually transpires.
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Override is a piece commissioned through Landing Theatre’s Micro Theatre Program for a home tour. As such, it means that it is a micro-play (check) written by a local playwright (check) to be performed within the walls of an actual Houston residence (not quite). Unfortunately, a last-minute location change meant the production was forced to move from the Sawyer Heights Lofts, the first of three planned stops, to the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance. The space looked to be a rehearsal room, with a laminate floor, white board mounted on the wall, and a piano pushed into a corner.
One of the draws of this type of production is the intimacy that comes along with such an immersive experience – seriously, it may be the closest we’ll ever get to being invisible. But the change of setting really only left you feeling like you were a fly on the wall during rehearsal. It’s just a side effect of the space; you certainly wouldn’t know anything was amiss by watching the actors. Kudos to Bridger for making any necessary adjustments (and kudos to the School of Theatre and Dance, for that matter, for making it possible for the show to go on at all). Though ultimately wrong for the production, the “set” was still able to evoke the mess of a dorm (or in this case, off-campus apartment) with empty snack-size bags of potato chips and bottles strewn about, and the requisite bottle of alcohol.
Luckily, Override is about to make the move to its next location in Meyerland. It’s a good show, one that’s bound to benefit greatly as it continues on the road, so if you can’t make it out to Meyerland within the next two weeks, try for Lindale Park at the end of the month. Trust me, Louise and Grav are characters you’ll want to meet and spend time with while you can. If you’re still not convinced, I’m not above using one word I know will pique your interest: hugasm. If you want context, meaning, an explanation – you’ll just have to see Override to find out.
Performances continue at 3 p.m. September 8 at the University of Houston School for Theatre and Dance, 3351 Cullen. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and September 15; 3 p.m. September 22 at Meyerland Venue, 5433 Loch Lomond from September 12 to 22. 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. September 29 at Lindale Park Venue, 223 Avenue of Oaks from September 26 to 29. For more information, call 713-489-3385 or visit landingtheatre.org. Pay what you can.