Artisanal Intelligence

Edmonton Fringe Festival 2019

by Janet French of the Edmonton Journal

You could hire a millennial who repeatedly shows up late because he was busy oiling his beard.

Or, you could staff your organic, plant-based, ethically sourced samosa restaurant with Barry, a certifiably hip automaton who loves wearing uniforms. She has a remarkably long battery life and workers’ rights don’t apply to machines.

Despite her engineer’s best attempts at programming perfection that influencers and entrepreneurs can depend upon, Barry has glitches. Sometimes she repeats herself. Sometimes she has ethical crises.

There’s plenty of ideas to unpack in this hour-long social commentary penned by Ira Cooper and produced by Spec Theatre of Vancouver. First, it mocks the generation that’s perpetually seeking to consume whatever happens to be trendy this week (then post about it on Instagram). It highlights the seemingly insatiable and fickle market for anything that seems exclusive and how tapping into demand becomes a temporary licence to print money. Are humans just sheep with Paypal accounts?

Like many have before, Cooper questions the limits of artificial intelligence and the origin of self-consciousness. The play also queries the agency of an artificial intelligence creator. Is Barry’s creator, Jane, her parent, a technician, her boss or something else?

Philosophy lesson aside, see Artisanal Intelligence for Drew Carlson’s masterful performance as Barry — a role that requires perpetual micro movements and unnatural speech patterns, as well as an incredible amount of memorization. This dense script is heavy with unusually specific strings of words (including a few Edmonton references for crowd appeal) that cannot be easy to spit out on command in a semi-robotic manner.

Plus, they sing three funny songs, including one where they harmonize with a coffee grinder. A coffee grinder.

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Edmonton Fringe Festival 2019

by Alan Kellogg of

Ira J. Cooper’s rich, jam-packed script is a wondrous thing to hear, a veritable glossary of the Here and Now, with some serious things re: A.I., labour issues etc. to ponder among all the laughs, which are many.

The performances are very good indeed, and director Bronwen Marsden keeps things moving along expertly. Strong, entertaining work courtesy of Vancouver’s Spec Theatre, which is welcome back any time.

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Island Fringe Festival 2019

by Sean McQuaid of The Buzz

… Remember all the things in the first paragraph I said the [other show] wasn’t? My favourite show of the festival was all of that stuff, plus whip-smart, charming and riotously funny besides. I’m talking about Artisanal Intelligence, the story of a girl and her robot, written by Ira Cooper, directed by Bronwen Marsden and produced by Spec Theatre of Vancouver, BC.

The sheer imaginative weirdness of the concept is pretty great: Jane (played by Hannah Everett) of Artisanal Intelligence, Inc. has invented the robotic hipster customer service agent Barry (played by Drew Carlson), programmed to serve niche businesses with her ever-expanding knowledge of specialized topics ranging from the coffee sciences to bicycle mechanics to obscure arts and culture references.

The play has Jane making a sales pitch to potential buyers (the audience). One could build a fun play entirely out of showcasing Barry’s ridiculously arcane trivia database, her superhuman barista proficiency and her many other esoteric skills, and we do get all that, and it’s a hoot; but Cooper’s script also mocks and celebrates hipster culture, explores artificial intelligence, and raises uneasy questions regarding the nature of life and free will. This segues into oddly touching emotional drama, forbidden romance and even a sci-fi battle for the fate of humanity, and it’s all resolved through the power of love and a musical number.

Everett is excellent as Jane, but the cybernetic superstar of the show is Carlson’s inhumanly cheerful Barry, whose stiffly jerky movements and stilted singsong voice make her seem like the adorable love child of an old-school Disney animatronic character and Amazon’s Alexa, though she gradually evolves into something else altogether. Carlson’s surreally bravura performance helps make Artisanal Intelligence not just my Fringe fave of 2019, but one of my favourite Fringe plays of all time.

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