Build, by Michael Golamco, is enjoying its Northern California premiere at City Lights Theater Company. In his previous career, Golamco was a software developer, but now he’s a veteran writer for stage and screen. He is currently one of the staff writers for the television show Grimm, though unlike Grimm, there aren’t any monsters in Build. The play is rife with storytelling and technology, and the script presented City Lights with several significant challenges. Fortunately director Lisa Mallette and the rest of her creative staff were able to meet those challenges head-on.
Ron Gasparinetti’s set is the epitome of a brilliant, but reclusive, software developer’s cave, or in this case, kitchen. The set depicts a small bungalow in Palo Alto showing a kitchen with two doors. One door leads out of the house while the other leads to the guest room. The place is cluttered with pizza boxes stacked up against one wall, an exercise bike, computer monitors strewn around the room, two computers sitting on the kitchen table, and another on the sink. There’s a rolling clear easel that they use as a “whiteboard” to capture notes during the story. An interesting mosaic of white wood panels reminiscent of Tetris shapes adorn the upper walls. Tetris pops up in various places starting in the lobby of the theater as patrons arrive. It’s also mentioned early in the play.
One of the characters in the play is an artificial intelligence, A.I. for short. She is essentially part of the set for a portion of the performance, flipping from monitor to monitor when she first appears. Lighting and video designer, Nick Kumamoto, uses a brand new computer system and three new projectors that City Lights was able to purchase, courtesy of a Knight Foundation grant, to make this all work.
Where does all this preparation take us? We enter the world of software development mythology, or in this case, video game development. The co-protagonists are brilliant software developers who made it big on a game they developed as Stanford roommates. Many years later when the story takes place, they sit on opposite ends of the corporate spectrum.
Will (Max Tachis) is powerful manager. He sports a designer suit and drives a Ferrari. He lives in a mansion on a hill replete with massive electronics built into the house that wow clients and celebrity friends alike. Kip (George Psarras) is burned out, lives in his grandmother’s house (where all the action takes place), sleeps in the guest room for some inexplicable reason, and sports a t-shirt and bathrobe. Kip is a recluse, pounding away on his computer working on his pet project, a game engine to end all game engines. He has also developed a revolutionary A.I. (Morgan Voellger) that is a dead ringer for his deceased wife Allison.
Will tries to get Kip to finish a new version of a popular subscription video game their company needs to get out to their users. The project is way behind schedule, and there are numerous bugs to work out in the software that Will documents with a marker on the rolling whiteboard. Although they address some of them, Kip is buried in his own project that has nothing to do with the game. They banter and bicker a bit, take a few digressions, but they continue to work their way through the bugs until Kip goes to sleep. Will comes back while Kip is still asleep and discovers Kip’s A.I. Then things get twisted.
Psarras’ character is damaged. He’s obsessed with his creation, and at this point, he has very little interest in monetary rewards. He just wants to be left alone. Psarras plays him as disconnected, with a somewhat flat affect. Outside of a few bursts of temper, he’s emotionless as he delivers several witty comments while maintaining a completely deadpan expression. We eventually learn more about Kip’s demons, and how he addresses them.
Tachis’ Will is livelier than Kip. He shows more emotion, interested not only in the project, but in life. He has a charisma about him, though his life is far from the perfection we derive from Kip’s diatribe early in the story. Together, Psarras and Tachis are very believable as longtime friends with very different goals in life.
Voellger has the most difficult job. A portion of her performance is from offstage, but she must still interact with her fellow actors. She starts out on several computer screens. Her speech is very mechanical sounding since she’s only a computer voice. As the story develops, Voellger eventually comes on stage, her speech becomes less mechanical and more human as her character learns. Voellger’s character transformation is both intriguing and entertaining. The A.I.’s metamorphosis isn’t only evident in speech but also in movement.
While there is a lot of technology used in the story, including a bit of software jargon, the story is really about relationships. The primary plotline is about Kip and Will’s friendship and some complications that arise. There’s a bit of profanity at times, though it is in keeping with the characters. A little more than halfway through the play, the story slows down. The script spends time exploring Kip’s background and his and Will’s relationship with Allison. Some of this background exploration drags a little, but it is necessary to set up the climax and resolution of the play.
Psarras is also the resident City Lights composer and sound designer. In this case, he composed a score that stylistically resembles video game music with its electronic arpeggios and progressions. He wrote the music, then he played and recorded his synth performance of it to create the sound mix used in production. Psarras combines his music with a few computer clicks and chirps to more fully orchestrate the sounds of the machine. Together with Kumamoto’s video flowing 1’s and 0’s or schematic lines around the mosaic panels showing the computer’s inner workings, the effects are impressive.
There is a moment that doesn’t work within the rules of the story. The A.I. is effectively a hologram which cannot exist in the real world, yet she makes direct contact with a physical object at one point late in the story, at least on opening night. That may change during the run as the play is still evolving, though that is the way it is currently written. On the other hand, there’s a bit of creative staging that Golamco requested for the first time in this production that breaks the fourth wall in a somewhat nontraditional way early in the story. As Kip first shows Will his new game engine, they bring the audience inside the room to experience the moment with Will. Through lighting changes and the actors’ focus through the house, the mood is one of wonder and awe.
Build gives audiences a unique look inside the world of tech through a story that reaches out in a compelling way. If you have a software background, great, you’ll understand the jargon used in discussion, but even if you don’t, the story is very accessible and touching. For software developers, two words form one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language,“it builds,” referring to their code when it compiles successfully. In the lingo of a software developer, Build builds.
What: Build, by Michael Golamco
Where: City Lights Theater Company located at: 529 South Second Street, San Jose, CA 95112.
When: Thursdays – Sundays through 22 February.
See cltc.org or call 408-295-4200 for more information.
(Photos courtesy of City Lights Theater Company)