REVIEW: Improbotics Online, Paris Fringe 2020 ★★★★☆

In events reminiscent of a mix between a Franz Kafka novel and an episode of Black Mirror written on an acid trip, Alex the Artificially Intelligent Avatar has joined an improv troupe. Alex’s automatically generated lines are slotted into the architecture of stories created by audience suggestions through a website. These suggestions are then beamed back to YouTube in the style of a Raoul Hausmann collage as the bodies of the improvisers are inserted into different backgrounds by virtual director Boyd Branch.

Improbotics Online was split into 3 sections. In the first, Alex is inserted directly into the scene, creating some incredibly surreal interaction between a photorealistic AI cat and a man who just wants to swim. In the second section two-hander scenes are played out by the improvisers but one’s body is inhabited by Alex, becoming a “Cyborg” and only speaking lines generated by the robot.

Possibly the most entertaining section of the show took the form of a narrative across many scenes where one of the improvisers was a “Cyborg” and the audience has to guess which. This led to a hysterical moment where in the middle of an intense scene about a woman who suspects her boyfriend has been cheating on her while he’s at the gym, improviser Harry Turnbull (seemingly inhabited by Alex) blurts out the line “The number of troops in Afghanistan in the past three years has risen directly in tandem with President Obama’s strategy.”

Other standout lines from the AI include “I’m your Mum, you’re my Brother, what do you think of my Dad?” and “I’m an alcoholic, so I don’t mind.” Alex, either intentionally or unintentionally, seems hellbent on disrupting any scene that they are dropped into the middle of.

The translation of the stage show into an online performance was not entirely seamless – however I do not feel it is important to mark Improbotics Online down for this, as a lot of the witty and interesting moments occurred during the slight awkward panic of being live and online. If anything, the online show seemed to thrive on the anarchy that the format provided. All of the performers showed excellent form to carry the show through despite being scattered all over the world.

Live suggestions from the audience were integrated into the show’s last segment and the performers seem to feed perfectly off of these as well as bouncing around Alex’s chaos-bringing presence. The narrative of this final segment took many surprising turns. It eventually landed on the story of a grunt being sent by a wizard to find him a Scandinavian wife as he had turned his previous girlfriend into a Pumpkin Spiced Latte while in the Starbucks queue.

His quest leads us to a woman who still bathes with her forty one year old adult son. On their first date, the wizard gets cold feet and turns himself into a cat, before through a number of tangential encounters lead us back to some sort of conclusion.

The implementation of the AI into these traditional Improv troupe games is genius and the pace of the event doesn’t skip a beat, even in between the monumental technical efforts undertaken to splice each player into a scene. This is exactly the kind of response that the creative world will have to look towards as we continue to learn to live with the current tricky situation regarding lockdowns and restrictions on how readily artists can perform together and in front of live audiences.

Overall, the show was raucous fun, pure anarchy and a dystopian vision of an Artificially Intelligent future where the Turing Test might be decided by how readily you can hold back your views about the deployment of US troops into the Middle East.

Improbotics Online is not to be missed this Paris Fringe. A second performance will be held on the Paris Fringe Youtube Channel on the 21st June 2020 at 21.30 Paris Time, for absolutely free. You can read more about future Improbotics performances on their website.

Photos remain property of Improbotics. Some photos used are from live Improbotics performances.