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Theater review: ‘The Ants’ is a ‘biting, timely thrill’ exploring artificial intelligence

Megan Hill (left) and Nicky Boulos (right) play Meredith and Nami in “The Ants.” The Geffen Playhouse production will run in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater through July 30. (Courtesy of Aaron Epstein)

“The Ants”

June 20 - July 30

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater

$39 - $129

By Victoria Munck

July 1, 2023 8:17 p.m.

This post was updated July 9 at 8:54 p.m.

“The Ants” is strikingly intelligent – and far from artificial.

Developed by Ramiz Monsef with the Geffen Playhouse’s Writer’s Room program, the horror-comedy play finds Nami (Nicky Boulos) trapped inside his brother Shahid (Ryan Shrime) and sister-in-law Meredith’s (Megan Hill) luxury home, equipped with an ultramodern security system known as The Brain (Hugo Armstrong). The production will bring keen social commentary to the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater through July 30, fitting accordingly with the growing conversation around artificial intelligence and class disparity. Featuring engrossing performances heightened by an array of visual surprises, “The Ants” captivates audiences with a biting, timely thrill.

Viewers are immediately acquainted with the unsettling, machinelike voice of The Brain before the play’s official start with a pre-show announcement warning that they are “being monitored.” As lights rise on stage, the first of many shocks ensues when Meredith appears from within an unassuming jumble of clothes to deliver an uncanny monologue foreshadowing the story’s chilling spiral into chaos.

[Related: ‘The Lonely Few’ redefines audience-performer relations for high-energy musical]

Beyond this opening soliloquy from the isolated clothing pile, the play transpires entirely within Shahid and Meredith’s upscale home atop a city hill. A pristine space with wide windows, the stunning set effectively conveys the couple’s excessive wealth – a vast marble kitchen island sits opposite a roomy living area adorned with modern art. The Brain, a luminous plastic-like figure around the size of a head, is positioned at the center of the living space, evidencing its role as a mainstay in both the household and the play.

Intricate lighting helps to characterize the assistive technology system on stage with vivid hues, sweeping projections and energetic movement. From the serene cream shades linked to the device’s “relax mode” to the flashing deep reds at its highest security level, the extensive variety of displays emphasizes the true pervasiveness of The Brain. This is augmented by clear audio that wraps around the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, immersing viewers in the futuristic fortress of a home.

Audiences are promptly entertained by new character introductions when Nami arrives at Shahid’s door in search of refuge from a harsh storm after being fired from his job and evicted from his residence. Nami comes across as immature and unreliable in comparison to his sophisticated brother and sister-in-law, setting up a tense but humorous dynamic. Apt costuming choices further present their dissimilarity – Nami dons a graphic tee and hooded zip-up, while the affluent homeowners sport sleek garments.

Yet despite first impressions, Nami is quick to subvert the expectations of audiences as the key driver behind the play’s compelling social commentary. He proves to be a complex, empathetic character, delivering thought-provoking monologues that express his desire to correct the systems that left his low-income community disadvantaged. The class satire is heightened by Meredith’s juxtaposing insensitivity throughout the show, as she acknowledges that her lifestyle is “prohibitively expensive” and criticizes the individuals experiencing homelessness that she encounters on her way up the hill.

[Related: Second Take: Class satire genre contrasts wealthy, working classes through dark comedy]

Tension picks up when a violent uprising from The Ants – a mass movement consisting of the same people experiencing homelessness Meredith had previously condemned – puts The Brain’s security system to the utmost test. The play impeccably engages viewers in this eerie tonal shift with suspenseful music and darker hues of light that stretch across the theater. Engrossing performances from Boulos and Hill generate genuine fear with nuanced physicality and anguished screams. The horror of “The Ants” proves more fulfilling than jump scares, as audience members are consistently enthralled by the story’s nail-biting possible outcomes.

As the threat of attack grows imminent, the play’s thrilling plot unfolds without an ounce of predictability through multi-layered and unforeseeable plot twists. Yet, witty humor still shines throughout the script without detaching from the story’s thrills. For instance, in a scene where Nami and Meredith debate opening their door for a pizza man (Jeremy Radin), viewers can laugh at their anxious discourse while still dreading the shadowy figure behind their iron entrance.

Despite this nearly flawless combination of horror and humor, “The Ants” slightly loses its footing with its jarring introductory and closing scenes, both booming monologues from Hill amongst piles of clothing and trash. Although Hill’s powerful voice and raw emotion contribute to undeniably strong performances, the crazed scenes feel too far removed from the story’s overarching tone and add unneeded length to its two hour, 20 minute runtime. Nonetheless, audience members can leave the show satisfied with its energetic and absorbing conclusion.

Ultimately, “The Ants” marks another gripping debut from the Geffen Playhouse, complete with fear, laughter and rumination that travel far beyond the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. The immersive play points directly toward the bright future of theater with a fresh, sharp take on the rapidly changing technological landscape, warning viewers of a society disengaged from humanity.

With a riveting story unlikely to leave brains, “The Ants” is sure to have viewers crawling back for more.

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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