Bringing ‘A Spark of Magic’ to the Stage in Fairfax

Bringing ‘A Spark of Magic’ to the Stage in Fairfax

City of Fairfax Theatre Co. presents ‘The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.’

Adam Ressa and Katie Kramer rehearse a scene from “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.”

Adam Ressa and Katie Kramer rehearse a scene from “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.” Photo courtesy of Kelly Suh

Similar to the hit TV series, “This is Us,” characters move between multiple time periods in “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.” It’s the upcoming play by the City of Fairfax Theatre Co. that will run May 3-11 and is part of the City’s annual Spotlight on the Arts festival.

Drifting between 1876, 1889, 1931 and 2011, the plot follows the lives of Eliza and her husband Merrick. But running through their story is Watson, in various incarnations. He’s the lab assistant to Alexander Graham Bell; chronicler of Sherlock Holmes; a middle-aged techie; and a robotic, Siri-like assistant.

“Written by Madeleine George, this witty, time-traveling, love triangle questions predictability and dependence,” said Producer Kirsten Boyd. “It challenges the way we look at the machines on which we all rely, and it’s sure to bring a spark of magic to the stage.”

This work was also a Best Play finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and won the 2014 John Gassner Playwriting Award. The scenes take place mainly in an unlit, wood-paneled, sitting room with a desk, chair, coffee table and fireplace. And Director Chuck Leonard says it will resonate with audiences on several levels.

“Eliza, Merrick, and Watson are the only characters, but the actors portray them with the same names in different eras and situations,” he explained. “The central similarity is Watson, trusty sidekick to Sherlock Holmes; loyal engineer who built Bell’s first telephone; unstoppable supercomputer, ‘Watson,’ that became the reigning ‘Jeopardy’ champ; and amiable, techno-dweeb who, in the present day, is just looking for love.”

THIS PREMISE, said Leonard, “suggests the urge most humans have for finding a companion to provide support, an ear, a shoulder or maybe even love. But we gain new insights into our current times if we examine how technology has entered into this age-old relationship. [And while] essentially, the play is a break-up story, it also asks how new technologies engage the oldest questions. And the playwright does this with humor, thoughtful analogies and insight.”

With connections to Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, plus the technology of IBM’s Watson and the fascination society has with AI [artificial intelligence], this play is incredibly timely,” continued Leonard. “If Siri and Alexa are becoming more common personal assistants, what is the next step? And how are we dealing with changing relationships with companions and loved ones, in an age when tech seems to be stealing our focus and energy?”

Playing Watson is Vienna’s Adam Ressa. “My characters are, technically, different persons, but they all share this weird, subconscious connection with each other,” he said. “Sometimes, the connections are blatant – they say the same line, their hands shake the same way, they have the same reaction to a piece of information, etc. But other times, the connections are much more subtle, so the audience will just pick up hints of them.”

He also likes his characters’ devotion to Eliza and Merrick. “He’s their companion and provides something only he can,” said Ressa. “And I enjoy the cyclical nature of the show. Many times, the separate stories all weave in and out of each other. Each individual character is a series of facets, making up a singular, complex human being. Eventually, each of their narratives all circle back, collectively, toward an inevitable outcome.”

Ressa was drawn to this show after reading the first scene. “I’m fascinated with artificial intelligence; I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be humanity’s greatest creation – and biggest downfall,” he explained. “I also love how the playwright addresses the subtleties most artificial intelligence lack. Most of us are fully aware of it, but she points it out eloquently.”

FAIRFAX’S KATIE KRAMER plays Eliza. In present day, she’s a computer genius working on a special AI project. In the 1900s, she’s a radio personality; and in the 1800s, she’s a damsel in distress, looking to Sherlock Holmes for guidance and advice.

“I love it,” said Kramer. “It’s really fun to find the similarities between them and also the different ways they react to things because of the different time periods they’re in. In the 1800s, Eliza is very intelligent; but in that era, it wasn’t accepted for her to voice it. So her story makes a nice circle because, in present day, she’s an incredibly smart woman and a dominating force in her industry. So that’s really exciting to play.”

As for the show, Kramer said, “It’s interesting because so few actors play so many roles. And there are lots of technical elements that will really bring these characters to life.”

Portraying Merrick is Fairfax City’s Kevin Dykstra. In present day, he’s a man running to be a councilman. In the 1800s, he’s an inventor and mechanical genius; and in no, specific time period, he plays Alexander Graham Bell. And at all times, he’s a scorned individual.

“I like playing him because he’s intense and an interesting, animated character,” said Dykstra. “It’s also fun to speak his words. He has a number of long monologues – some, thought through, and some, he makes up as he goes along, so it gives me a lot to work with. But I don’t agree with his politics, and he sometimes isn’t the nicest guy in the world. Since he’s ‘just’ in two time periods, I can show the difference by changing his body language and the way he interacts with other people.”

He said the actors have to do a good job letting the audience know when a character or time period changes. “It’s up to us to make that clear,” said Dykstra. “And it’ll keep them engaged in the action.”

But, he added, “There are a lot of layers of parallels between each person’s individual characters and also in the relationships between the other characters onstage. And the audience will be able to perceive some of the ways each character’s behaviors and interactions overlap in the various time periods.”

To Go

Show times are Friday-Saturday, May 3-4, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m.; and Thursday, Friday, Saturday, May 9, 10, 11, at 8 p.m., in Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive in Fairfax.

Free parking is available next to Old Town Hall and in the parking garage, a block away, on the west side of University Drive.

Tickets are $20, adults; $15, students with I.D, via​. They’re $5 more at the door. Appropriate for mature audiences.