The Milwaukee Rep’s Professional Training Institute stages a provocative drama this weekend with Michael Rohd’s The Compass. Director Jeffrey Mosser brings together a diverse, young cast in the near-future sci-fi drama of one girl and the app that might be at least partially responsible for landing her in court. High school senior Terynn Erby-Walker renders an impressively complex portrayal of a girl named Marjahn who is faced with a tough decision. She consults an app for some kind of guidance. Things get suitably disconcerting in a compelling couple of hours that cover a tremendous amount of ground.
The sci-fi element of the drama involves a fictitious smartphone app. “The Compass,” analyzes a user’s personality and tells them what they will do in any situation that is presented to it. As a user, you’re not asking the app what you should do...you’re asking it what you WILL do. It responds. You can do whatever you want in response to this information. You could go against Compass' prediction, but do you really want to second-guess it?
In the “real world,” people WOULD have a tendency to mess with this sort of thing. People are...messy. People like to be unpredictable. People ALSO like making this sort of app malfunction and do weird things. It seems like a bit of a stretch to think that people would blindly follow an algorithm that thinks it knows them better than they do. Rohd’s premise IS a fun thought experiment, though. For the most part, the specifics of the app’s algorithm are vague enough to be believable without cluttering the narrative. The center of the drama rests in a world of uncertainty as the script navigates its way through the story of Marjahn.
The play takes the form of a trial. Over the course of the play, members of the cast occasionally break to engage sections of the audience in discussions about various aspects of the trial. Intermittent audience discussion could seriously derail the dramatic momentum of a script that’s as layered and intricate as Rohd’s. Cast an audience alike glide along through some very abstract ethical and philosophical territory in harrowingly tight corners of time that rest within a cleverly-crafted narrative that flits quickly from three distinct timelines. There is the “now” of the trial. There is the recent past leading up to the crime. There is the relatively distant past of the app’s Steve Jobs/Elizabeth Holmes-inspired product launch event. It is to Mosser’s credit that this runs as smoothly as it does. Brief interludes for discussion included, the drama is less than two hours from start to finish and it all feels remarkably fluid. The visual elements of production are a big part of that fluidity.
Video Designer Joseph Burke’s countdown clocks clearly define the time the audience has to talk. There are three large smartphone-shapes screens onstage that provide a great deal of information in and around social media and the ever-present Compass app. Burke’s work on the show feels remarkably slick, allowing for a near seamless fusion between the world of emotion, motion and motivation as humanity interacts with a world of uncertainty through an app that promises to make life so easy.
The Milwaukee Rep Professional Training Institute’s production of The Compass runs through July 31st at the Stiemke Studio. For more information, visit the Milwaukee Rep online. Tickets are only $10 each.