a nod to Shaw, ‘brother sister cyborg space’ explores moral responsibility and societal ills

What if Adam and Eve started life in outer space? What if The Holy Spirit was artificial intelligence? What if billionaires were forced to listen to the working class? What if some prominent activists are able to take social risks due to class privilege? What if you had the opportunity to change the lives of those most at risk? These are just a few of the world bending questions that playwright Paul Michael Thomson is posing in his new play, brother sister cyborg space

At the top of the show, the world is cracked open. We are struck with one extraterrestrial image after another (projections Michael Commendatore), with a silhouetted astronaut waving at us from far, far away upstage. Set pieces (designed by Steven Abbott) move in and out of view revealing new worlds, accompanied by a tectonic, booming aural landscape (sound, Jeffrey Levin). This visual world building by director Terry Guest defines the play’s scope – the use of magical realism signals to us that this will not simply be a living room play. Thomson’s play, brother sister cyborg space creates room for the emotional, the visual, and the visceral. Movement utilized inside the play is essential, whether it comes from the set or the actors, as the intellectual text would be impenetrable without it. 

L-R, Matt Bowdren & Brittney Brown. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

brother sister cyborg space is about a pair of siblings stratified by class and upbringing. Elon (no relation), and his half-sister Giselle have different mothers. The result is apparently that Giselle (Brittney Brown) is a woman of color with big dreams for the death of capitalism, the death of monopolization, and the advancements of womens’ rights and LGBTQIA+ rights. Elon (Matthew Bowdren) on the other hand, is a multi-billionaire with investments in Big Oil and may or may not be connected to several human rights violations through his capitalist endeavors. Actors Matt Bowdren and Brittney Brown keep the engine of the play moving as their characters conflict, delivering big ideas disguised as intimate conversation with an innate passion.  

The word I deeply fear to use in reference to this play is ‘didactic’ because I mean it as a compliment. Big Idea plays that expose societal ills have a place in the theatre, and when I had digested how I felt about brother sister cyborg space I realized… George Bernard Shaw also was once an emerging playwright. If that sounds like a large comparison, please let me remind you, placing folks in their artistic lineage is one of the most essential parts of my job. Shaw was castigated and ostracized by critics, and censored and harrassed by police. They despised him for things like being too opinionated about capitalism and exploitation, or for having strong feminist arguments and heroes in his plays, which are also characteristics of Paul Michael Thomson’s writing.  Length must be acknowledged here – while some of Shaw’s plays required upwards of three hours to communicate his points, Thomson does it in a tight 95 minutes.

A theme that Shaw was known for positing was the portrayal of man as spiritual creator, versus the woman as guardian of the human race. A tension echoed in the core conflict between Thomson’s characters, though not as comfortably embraced. Elon (no relation) and his half-sister Giselle, are extremely sure of where they stand, and trying desperately to move the other towards their point of view. It is clear that they need each other to survive, but will they come together in time to save their future?

Listening to, enhancing, and at times terrorizing their argument is Ava (Charence Higgins), the Alexa-like personal assistant that curates Elon’s life. Ava is an interesting device – literally – through which to explore questions of sentience, the responsibility of the creator, higher intelligence, and intellectual and physical autonomy. 

Though Thomson gives the characters ample room to arrive at their decisions, and throws a lot of character complexities in the mix, ultimately moral conclusions are drawn. This is a scenario that is always hard to balance for a writer – one may choose to pose many questions and not answer them, or to pose many questions and take their best shot. I appreciate that Thomson has created a play that so adamantly advocates for women’s autonomy, environmental justice, community organizing. Meanwhile, characters turn themselves inside out as they reveal complexity after complexity, fighting through the emotional roadblocks to reason their way back to what they believe. 

Guests’ directing guides the actors to land each argument keeping the audience in line with the heartbeat of the story, something I am sure is aided by being a gifted actor and playwright on his own terms. Terry Guest has directed only one production prior to this in Chicago, and he won a Jeff for it: Marie Antoinette & The Magical Negroes. Guest’s production of brother sister cyborg space is remarkable. This is a sophomore solid, as far as I am concerned, rather than the fabled sophomore slump. The only thing I desired was more movement from the beautiful poetic sequences Thomson has scattered throughout the play, even as I respect the choice to let us simply hear the words. 

Paul Michael Thomson, has written generous portraits of two characters who, instead of feeling like talking heads, feel like the last shreds of humanity trying to reach each other from opposite sides of the galaxy. Yet, they are never truly alone, as the AI Ava constantly reminds them. Thomson and Guest have also given us a juicy Deus Ex Machina moment that made me exclaim out loud!

brother sister cyborg space is a two-hander with a lot of passion, and I’m looking forward to future productions from the playwright, director, and Raven’s new Artistic & Executive Leaders alike. 

brother sister cyborg space is running at Raven Theatre until March 17th!

Bias Alert: I workshopped Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes in 2019. I’m in community with several of the creators including Paul Michael Thomson, Terry Guest and Catherine Miller. 

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At Rescripted, we believe in arts criticism from multiple perspectives. Read what other Chicago critics are saying about brother sister cyborg space at TheatreinChicago.com!

ElonMatt Bowdren 
GiselleBrittney Brown
Voice of Ava – Charence Higgins

Playwright – Paul Michael Thomson
Director – Terry Guest
Production Manager – Lucy Whipp
Assistant Director – Brenna DiStasio
Stage Manager – Deya Friedman 
Costume Designer – Racquel Postiglione 
Lighting Designer – Levi Wilkins  
Projections Designer – Michael Commendatore 
Scenic Designer – Steven Abbott 
Sound Designer – Jeffrey Levin 
Intimacy Coordinator – Victoria Nassif
Technical Director – Ben Lipinski 
Casting Director – Catherine Miller 
Dramaturg – Sarah Slight 
Assistant Dramaturg – Emma Sipora Tyler 
Production Photographer – Michael Brosilow

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