Seven Siblings Theatre presents Stef Smith’s dystopian sci-fi drama, Girl in the Machine. With its intense anxiety about the rapid technological invasion of our lives, the comparison to Black Mirror is pretty obvious. Where Charlie Brooker succeeds (for the most part) is in specificity. Here though, Smith strives to be more vague with her fictional tech, which doesn’t make the story more timeless and universal, it just feels too insistently—and clumsily—metaphorical.
Polly (Madryn McCabe) and Owen (Alex Clay) are a successful professional couple. Owen seems to have a pretty good work-life balance, but Polly is a workaholic and it’s taking a toll on her psyche and their relationship. One evening, Owen brings home a gift—the Black Box. This gadget is all the rage. With a wireless headset, it taps into your body’s vital signs, gages your mental state and then—well, here it gets muddled. At first, it seems that the device’s primary objective is to ease the user’s stress, but it quickly becomes more invasive.
Polly gradually loses touch with Owen and the outside world as she allows her consciousness to be more deeply absorbed into the Black Box. From ominous reports that drift in, we gather that this device is wreaking havoc with the rest of society as well.
The Black Box sessions are haphazardly poetic, stream-of-consciousness trances that feel vaguely ominous. As the voice of the Black Box, Sappho Hansen Smythe has a soothing rhythm that almost lets you trust this tech, but it dips with subtle perfection into the uncanny valley.
The already narrow area of Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace is made even more cramped by Stephen King’s confined set. The faux-futurist aesthetic provides a bleak vision of condo living in an overpopulated near-future, where living space is depressingly utilitarian. Polly’s work desk is crushed in on all sides and looms uncomfortably over their living space. My eye was consistently drawn to an eerily slanting, forced perspective slab in the centre of the set that is an oppressive presence in their home.
Director Will King crafts plenty of arresting images and his sound design is effectively chilling in its glitchy, techno-infused delirium. He and lighting designer Chin Palipane make some bold and thrilling choices at key moments. Though this production’s tech and design elements shine, it was hard for me to emotionally invest in the reality of this world and its two characters.
There are promising kernels here—cool ideas about the potential threat to our humanity posed by increasing technological integration, but Smith’s script plays less like a story and more like a medley of dystopian sci-fi tropes. And I could never fully invest in either Polly or Owen. I know who they are, I think; McCabe and Clay do convey defined personalities, but I was always too aware of their acting choices.
Conceptually, Girl in the Machine is topical and intriguing though not particularly insightful. The production has plenty of atmospheric world building that should send some shivers down your spine.