'Build' is a Must-See
for Local Theater Lovers

City Lights Theaters' new sci-fi story presses all the right buttons
City Lights Theater WEIRD SCIENCE: Kip (George Psarras, left) and Will (Max Tachis) struggle to finish their latest video game in 'Build,' now playing at City Lights Theater Company

Some plays dazzle with elaborate costumes, special effects, choreography and lush orchestration, or action-packed plots. Others, including Build, the current production by San Jose's City Lights Theater Company, impress in a different, deeper way. Quite simply, Build is excellent. It shines with a well-written, intriguing script and superb acting, and is a must-see for local theater lovers.

Set in Palo Alto, Build begins like an episode of the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley, before twisting and turning into something darker and more resonant—winding up more like an episode of the British sci-fi anthology series, Black Mirror, exploring the ramifications of technology and simulated reality. A plot based around elaborate video games and artificial intelligence may seem better suited to a movie or television program, like the aforementioned, but it's a testament to Build that three people talking in a kitchen can prove so riveting on the stage.

Kip (George Psarras) and Will (Max Tachis), are childhood friends turned co-workers who've designed a number of hugely successful computer games together. Since their initial success, the two have gone in different directions. Like a modern-day Odd Couple, Kip dresses in bathrobes, sweats, and superhero t-shirts, lives a slovenly existence as a recluse in his late grandmother's house, and has little interest in the world outside of gaming and coding, while Will dresses impeccably, drives a Ferrari, entertains celebrities in his luxury homes, and tries his best to please his board of directors, whom Kip wants nothing more than to annoy whenever possible. The two must reunite to complete a long-awaited sequel to their most popular game, but tensions run high as they clash over work style, objectives, and simmering past grudges. Joining this duo is Morgan Voellger as Allison, a computer simulation of Kip's late wife, with dangerously lifelike intelligence and emotional understanding.

I'm hesitant to say much more about the plot of Build, as it unfolds in a well-crafted and surprising manner. Wonderfully written by Michael Golamco, the dialogue is believable, and exposition, when it happens, never seems clunky. It's quite funny at times and heartbreaking at others—a perfect blend of each. It's a credit to both Golamco's script and the actors that the characters feel so real (including, ironically, the simulated Allison). At the play's start, both Kip and Will are funny, but fairly obnoxious, stereotypical tech bros. As time goes by and the audience gets to know them, they become rich and multifaceted, and viewers are fully invested in what becomes of them. Kudos to Psarras and Tachis for bringing this pair to life so vividly. Voellger, too, is great in her role as both the charming, computerized Allison and the ghost of the real Allison as heard through emails, changing her voice and mannerisms just enough to make the characters separate but related. Credit is also due to director Lisa Mallette for guiding the production so adeptly.

Scene design by Ron Gasparinetti adds to the production's successful execution. The lower half of the stage forms Kip's pigsty of a Palo Alto bungalow, complete with accurate details such as Pizza My Heart boxes, while the upper half consists of computer monitors and falling Tetris shapes, (for reasons that are later made clear). I especially liked the care given in designing an exterior to the home, even though it's glimpsed only briefly. Lighting and video design by Nick Kumamoto is also key. The scene in which Kip shows Will his discovery of just how elegant an engine he's built is absolutely breathtaking, all without the audience actually seeing anything of their screen, relying solely on the actors' interaction and the lighting and sound cues. That's powerful drama. With its Silicon Valley setting, Build seems an obvious choice for a local theater company such as City Lights, but it's much more than a gimmick.

Explorations into artificial intelligence and virtual realities notwithstanding, like any great work of science fiction, Build is built upon human emotions and experience—and City Lights delivers it beautifully. To paraphrase Allison (quoting Kip), "books tell you something, movies show you something, games let you do something." Great theater, Build included, makes you feel you're witnessing something real.


Thru Feb. 22

City Lights Theater


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