False memories plague the figure that makes up half the heart of Tochi Onyebuchi’s short story “Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown.” He recalls childhood. He thinks about his father. He remembers them feeding horses in a stable together.
None of these things happened to him. He’s a machine, seeded with just enough “junk DNA” from a real person to achieve sentience, as his nurse attendant, Cecile, explains.
“You think, one day, we’ll be free of them? We’ll only have the stuff we’ve accumulated on our own?” he asks her.
“No,” she replies flatly.
The dreamer and the pragmatist each search for meaning in their own way in Onyebuchi’s contemplative science-fiction story, adapted as an audioplay and directed by Gin Hammond for Book-It Repertory Theatre.
After an online-only 2020-21 season, Book-It will begin live performances again early next year, but the company is kicking off this hybrid season with two more recorded audio dramas. “Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown” is available to stream or download now. Coming later this month is Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers,” adapted and directed by Lamar Legend.
The pandemic prompted many theaters to cobble together new forms of storytelling, to mixed effect, but Book-It’s embrace of a century-old format is a perfect fit for its expository style.
“Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown” is essentially a two-hander between Cecile (Mandy Rose Nichols) and the android boxer (Tim Gouran) she’s continually tasked with repairing after vicious matches shred his mechanical body. Nichols’ performance is cool, methodical, unflappable — and in distinct contrast to Gouran’s wily, high-key energy. In alternating monologues, the moods clash. The boxer is brash but self-conscious, always questioning his own motives and desires. Cecile just does her job, repairing sinew and steel.
But as the two characters’ paths intertwine, similarities emerge, and Onyebuchi unspools well-worn sci-fi examinations of identity and humanity familiar to anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick. Even if it’s not thematically inventive, “Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown” is always engaging, Onyebuchi’s propulsive prose hurtling from one scene to the next with just enough florid flourishes to re-center your attention.
“Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown” is not a major work for Onyebuchi, who’s written several young-adult novels and the Hugo Award-nominated novella “Riot Baby,” but Hammond adapts it faithfully, keeping the vast majority of the short story intact in Book-It’s 45-minute drama.
Leavening Nichols’ and Gouran’s different brands of intensity is a brief but charming supporting turn from Annette Toutonghi as Brianne, one of Cecile’s co-workers. Sound design by Impossible Acoustic with Brendon J. Hogan and Paul Eric Miller augments the world-building with thudding fists, the roar of the crowd, chirping crickets and the hum of an operating room.
As live theatrical performances continue to return, most theaters will look to box up their stopgap formats and maybe never look back. But Book-It has developed a strong extension of its brand with its audioplays, which succeed in the company’s mission to bring life to literature in new ways.