Dystopian future of corporate AI in the new musical comedy ‘In Corpo’ at NYC’s Theatre Row

Do you ever feel like corporate technology is taking over your life and the world, it might not be the best thing for personal autonomy and humanity in general, and it all seems so absurd? You are not alone. In the world premiere of the zany (not-so-distant) futuristic synth-folk-pop sci-fi musical In Corpo, presented by The Assembly in association with Dutch Kills Theater and now playing a limited engagement at Theatre Row, Ben Beckley (book) and Nate Weida (book and music) consider the enticing all-consuming qualities of AI, the effects of virtual reality on real human connection, and how to rebel against it.

The cast. Photo by Bjorn Bolinder.

The story is set in a time of drastic climate change, unclean air, and isolation (all of which are contributed to by the energy released by AI tech), when the last corporation on Earth is providing work, shelter, nourishment, mandatory exercise, and filtered air for rigorously screened employees. But it all comes at a price, with strictly enforced regulations, requiring unknown passwords and access codes, unresponsive robo-calls, surreptitious thought receptors, and impossible workloads, while prohibiting face-to-face contact, outside digital devices, and access to their bureaucratic leaders. Yet everyone is happy, smiling, and cooperative (because they’re “paid to follow protocol, not to think,” and they “Can’t Lose This Job”), until K, an unfamiliar external consultant, appears on the scene (in warm winter clothes, not in uniform), questions the status quo, breaks the rules, and enquires about what became of the missing onsite manager Titorelli, who had sent for her but was unexpectedly replaced by Bendemann prior to her arrival.

In creating the new work, the writers mixed their own disheartening experiences in real-life day-jobs, which forced them to navigate untenable corporate procedures, with borrowed elements from past literary sources – Franz Kafka’s 1920s proto-Absurdist novel The Castle (including K’s name and the struggle against arbitrary control by unseen non-transparent superiors); Kafka’s The Trial (from which Titorelli was derived); and Herman Melville’s 1850s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (in which the eponymous hard-working employee announces that he “would prefer not to” do his job assignments, appropriating both his name and proclamation here, along with the inspiration of the silly food-and-drink-based monikers of some of the other characters) – to tell a dystopian tale of a time soon to come, with its roots in then and now.

Members of the cast. Photo by Bjorn Bolinder.

Under the direction of Jess Chayes, a cast of nineteen on-stage and voice-over actors take us on the journey of the human and AI “Employees of 13-G,” faced with unmanageable numbers of packets to process, as they transition from acquiescence to increasing awareness and dissatisfaction to a growing desire to crash the ever-encroaching system and to recover their independence by embracing the physical world and reconnecting with each other personally, not virtually, in a “Final Appeal.” It’s a great message for audiences sharing the communal experience of live theater, delivered by the company with wacky humor and outstanding harmonies and musicianship, with music direction by Ben Caplan, on 27 original songs that define the characters and their situation (e.g., “What a Crazy Mess,” “Inauspicious Welcome,” and “What Are They Hiding?”).

Zoe Siegel. Photo by Bjorn Bolinder.

In the lead roles are RJ Christian as Bendemann, Zoe Siegel as K, and Jessica Frey as Pepi, the head of HR, each bringing changing emotions and development to their human characters. Monica Ho and Wesley Zurick as the AI assistants Waitasec and Offyago provide the frustrations we all deal with of ridiculous robotic responses, inferred information, and required sequences of numbers and letters to get into the network. Caplan as Dollar Pizza, Patrick Chan as Jelly Donut, Devon Meddock as Johnny Walker, and Austin Owens Kelly as the brilliant Bartleby generate the fitting synthesized score (and in the case of Bartleby, much more), with live mixing by Jack McGuire, and Beckley is the mysterious Titorelli, whose call for K triggers the narrative and the rebellion against the corporation. They are supported by the incorporeal voices of Emily Caffrey, David Greenspan, Anna Ishida, Meredith Lucio, Alley Scott, Alec Silver, Fred Rice, Richard Thieriot, and Asa Wember, along with those of Siegel and Beckley.

RJ Christian and Jessica Frey. Photo by Bjorn Bolinder.

The amusing retro-futuristic costumes (by Kate Fry) and moves (choreography by lisa nevada) call to mind the original 1960s TV sci-fi series Star Trek and the 1980s new wave band Devo (“We Are Not Men We Are Devo”), suggestive of the devolution of humanity into AI. An eye-catching multi-level scenic design (by Nic Benacerraf) and lighting (by Mary Ellen Stebbins) evoke an artificial landscape and sky outlined in neon, as well as waves of intense energy, inside the corporation, filled with individual pods and light-up headsets for the employees, enhanced by an apropos sound design (by Asa Wember).

Identities of some of the many characters can be confusing (there is a digital program you can scan at the theater, but your cell phones must be turned off for the show) and some of the critical ideas (like the parodic repetition of pass codes) can become redundant, so for me the show might have benefitted from some editing for conciseness and impact. With that said, In Corpo is a colorful, funny, intelligent, and insightful lampoon of where we’re headed and why we shouldn’t go there.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.

In Corpo plays through Sunday, July 8, 2023, at Theatre Row, Theatre 4, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $57.50-72.50, including fees), go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.


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