Humanity in Lieu of Sanity, ‘The Summit’ at Guild Hall

Shock of the new?
“The experimental ‘The Summit’ is a sort of experiment in itself,” our reviewer writes. Phillip Lehans

Since experimental theater has been around for about 100 years, it’s starting to feel like the word “experimental” is being rendered meaningless by overuse. Nowadays, it has become a glib brand label that doesn’t mean anything more than a suggestion of something that isn’t mainstream. And after a century of this stuff, a show that abandons the rules of the all-too-familiar play will be just as likely to tread a familiar path as break new ground.

As such, “The Summit,” an experimental theatrical performance onstage at Guild Hall through Sunday, doesn’t offer much shock of the new. What it does promise, in its ambitious scope, is to catch one’s imagination by conducting an experiment about what theater can be.

But experiments need time to determine success or failure and, in this case, the data is still coming in and the results are far from certain. Instead, go see it for yourself and decide what to make of it. This, I will say: You won’t go home in a mood of complacency.

The action takes place in 2081, when a group of so-called “global elite,” consisting of technologists, trans-genetic hybrids, cyborgs, and a menagerie of autonomous networked pets and appliances, gather for a hedonistic bash as they prepare to abandon their bodies and upload their consciousness into the virtual beyond. It is to be their final night of bodily delights, and assigned to assist them in their journey to technological transcendence is an awkward, malfunctioning Artificial Intelligence named Eenn.

Written, produced, and directed by Isla Hansen, Tucker Marder, and Christian Scheider, “The Summit” was commissioned by Guild Hall, which deserves applause for supporting work other than a glut of consoling fare and helping to develop the theater makers of the future. Today’s experimenters are, after all, tomorrow’s mainstream.

In 2014, the trio collaborated on a stage adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel “Galapagos,” which premiered at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. As with “Galapagos,” “The Summit” employs a large cast — 22 in this case, ranging from Manhattan-based actors  to local stage veterans like Alan Ceppos and Terrence Fiore, to high school performers such as Lola and Gigi Lama and Jamar Jones. It is also filled with puppets, whirring appliances, video projections on the walls of the John Drew Theater, large inflating props (front-row audience members be warned), dance sequences, entertaining live music, and some brilliant slapstick humor provided mostly by Chris Daftsios, who plays Eenn, the malfunctioning robot.

Sadly, much of the 85-minutes of theater relies too heavily on expressionism and absurdism, and the action unravels into something messy and obscure. But what is clever is the idea behind “The Summit.” After all, there is something paradoxically and definitively human in our longing for liberation from human form. It reminded me of the W.B. Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the aging poet writes of his burning to be free of the weakening body, to abandon the “dying animal” for the immortal form of a man-made mechanical bird. “Once out of nature / I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing / But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.”

In Silicon Valley, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life, by uploading minds to exist separately from the body, will be a reality by 2050. They are convinced that the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies, effected by the kind of procedure characterized in the Guild Hall performance. The aim of these transhumanists is to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other and better than the animals we are.

Ms. Hansen is 30, while Mr. Marder and Mr. Scheider (the son of the late actor Roy Scheider) are both 28. They are millennials who seem keen to remind the world that not all those born in the digital age have sold their souls to technology or live under the influence of unseen algorithms.

Given the world we live in, where such a liberal ideal of the autonomous self is already receding like a half-remembered dream, the trio has essentially turned Guild Hall into a “recalibration center,” where the audience is offered one of the best antidotes to digital dehumanization: watching live theater. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar wrote brilliantly about this topic last year in The New York Times. “The theater is an art form scaled to the human, and stubbornly so, relying on the absolute necessity of physical audience,” he wrote. “It only happens when and where it happens. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. It doesn’t exist to be paused or pulled out at the consumer’s whim. [. . .] In a world increasingly lost to virtuality and unreality — the theater points to an antidote.” 

And so, the experimental “The Summit” is a sort of experiment in itself, presenting the biggest challenge for today’s young digital slaves and moreover for the 40-plus crowd, who are becoming increasingly tethered to their devices. 

Can you do it? Can you sit there for 85 minutes, a living being before a living performer? Not looking at a screen version of a person, but the reality of one. Not reaching for a cellphone to mitigate moments when the action gets dull. Not using your mind merely as a piece of software but actually engaging in a cultural activity that requires the application of the brain?

And, if you do, whatever your feelings when you leave the theater, please share them on Facebook or Twitter. Because that’s where everyone will be looking for a review. 

“The Summit” at Guild Hall, East Hampton, will be performed today, tomorrow, and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.

A scene from “The Summit” at Guild Hall. Tucker Marder, Isla Hansen, and Christian Scheider are the creative team behind the performance.