Improv can be a drag at the best of time, and the addition of augmented realties and artificial intelligence does the comedy format no favours in Improbotic’s ambitious show for Camden Fringe. So excited are the cast members about Rosetta Code, where a computer calls the shots, that they forget to tell the audience how it all works.
The first few scenes, where the audience shouts out character names and scenarios, are acted by the cast in different languages, but it’s difficult to work out what part the A.I. plays. Presumably the point is to show how limited translation software is when words are taken out of context. Or perhaps it’s to demonstrate how advanced these systems are. It’s impossible to tell.
The nine strong cast – 10 if you count Yutte who dials in from Stockholm – all know what’s going on and have a whale of a time with Alex the robot, and his imperfect vocabulary. But without a clear methodology, it’s a pleasure that is decidedly one-sided. Piotr Mirowski, who seems to be in charge, understands the technology so well that he introduces the concept of chat bots without explaining what they are.
Fortunately, the final scenario rescues the show. Here the computer is allowed to tell a story using the phrases that it has stored in its memory. The performers have to think quickly and do so with some fine comedy, but it’s still not clear whether the pictures that appear on the big screen are prompted by the computer’s own memory or whether they are the decision of Mirowski and his collaborator who both operate the keyboards. Not knowing proves very unsatisfactory.
There’s a premise here that can be explored further, but whether A.I. can replace the randomness of audience suggestions in improvised comedy is uncertain. Doesn’t the fun lie in the surreal and strange ideas that an audience shouts out? Alex, the chat bot, may lack logic, but so does a late-night boozy crowd.
Rosetta Code hasn’t found its audience yet. Mirowski voices Alex as a singsong robot that you would find on kids’ tv, while the rest of the cast is far from edgy, and the jokes are mostly squeaky clean. And yet, this is not a kids’ show. But who is it for? Perhaps Alex the computer should work on some demographic data before all is lost in translation.
Runs until 19 August 2021
Camden Fringe runs from 2 to 29 August 2021