Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Adding Machine - A Layman's review

The end of the month during the summer is a rough time to put on a play in Houston as most people's disposable income gets eaten away by higher energy costs. So, it's nice that there was a Poor Schlep Night better known as "Pay-What-You-Can Monday Night". I still paid my tenner but it was nice to know the option was there. For me, the big thrill was that, with my schedule, this was actually the perfect night to check out this show. Now I'm no theatre critic and having neither read the play nor seen another performance I cannot speak to Mike Switzer's direction but I'll gladly offer up my layman's review as it gives me something to do while I'm "participating" in a teleconference.

The Adding Machine poses some difficult problems during the first act as Mr. Zero (Marc Carrier) is a completely unlikable arrogant, repressed, and subservient schmuck. The character has no redeeming qualities and, as he allows the world to run over him, Carrier plays him in a manner that alternates between two extremes; Mr. Zero is either detached from his surroundings or frustrated at his stagnant life. Rice's difficulty is that his character is appropriately a frustrating bore - a mere petulant baby - which leaves the question of how to move a play along with such a character that is largely passive and submissive. All movement (save for Mr. Zero's murder of his boss which is more a mere fit than any act of self-determination or rebellion) is generated by his surroundings. Things act upon him and not the other way around.

Two scenes stand outs in the first act. Played beautifully is the bit where Mr. Zero imagines a conversation in which his boss (Stephen Foulard) tells Mr. Zero "Mr. Zero, I've had my eye on you" and rewards his 25 years of labor with a raise and a promotion - hilarious. Foulard plays this scene brilliantly like some clichéd cuddly well-to-do boss out of a Frank Capra movie coming in to reward the hard working noble hero. Mr. Zero's vision is as pathetic as it is funny and, of course, Mr. Zero's reality is far from what he imagines; while he does the receive the visit from his boss (who can't even recall Mr. Zero's name) the visit is to inform him of his being fired which results in Mr. Zero snapping with the murder of the boss.

The following scene, in which the Ones, Twos, Threes, Fours, Fives, and Sixes join the Zeros for a dinner party, is also quite funny and the cast clearly has fun with the silly manner in which the characters all go down the line completing a thought. The banter is inane and clichéd but that is the point and the cast plays it with a vaudeville verve that carries the scene. The first act closes with Mr. Zero fate sealed by a jury leaving the second act which, despite the death of the main character, is where the play comes to life.

With all the main plot points taken care of, Rice starts to have some serious fun with his play and nobody personifies the energy of the second act more than John Dunn who steals the show with his performance as Shrdlu - a repressed soul of a murderer who is consumed by a hilarious self-imposed angst. His greatest torment is that he is not consumed by flames of hell for his sins. Dunn plays the character perfectly not simply with his voice (think and angst driven Boris Karloff) but with his whole body (primarily via an Igor-like gait) - simply an inspired and hilarious performance. Shrdlu and Zero eventually reach The Elysian Fields whose beauty and joy neither can accept butZero is handed one chance to find happiness when Daisy (Liz Seabolt), Mr. Zero's unrequited love, finally finds him. For a minute Zero gives into enjoying himself but eventually shuns the Fields for a room where he works ceaselessly with an adding machine. Here in the final act the Lieutenant (a brilliant Stephen Foulard- again) arrives to tell him his time is up and it is time to go back to Earth for another round. This is clearly Foulard's scene and he plays it expertly. As the Lieutenant is to a large extent a voice for the audience's disgust for the Mr. Zero, the Lieutenant lays down the reincarnation scheme of Rices afterlife - souls go in, get a break, recharge their batteries, and get thrown back. He explains that some souls get better and others like Mr. Zero's get worse. Mr. Zero, he explains, gets worse because he is by nature a slave and that he clearly cannot improve his lot. The Lieutenant mocks Zero to the point where Mr. Zero begs to not be sent back. The Lieutenant finally resorts to giving Zero a false Hope to return to the mortal world where the play ends as they make room for another soul.

One thing that should be pointed out is that the music was excellent. Charlie Naked did a great job and his players were excellent! Jeff Millers bass had this gorgeous Berlin Krautrock tone that I particularly loved and Phil Kriegs Theremin work was impeccable! Im hoping for a CD-R release soon.

The curious thing to me about the play is that while this is a dark comedy and some point to its eastern religious reincarnation elements, I find Rice's main message no different than someone as mainstream as the afore-mentioned Capra. Unless you think that Rice is suggesting a kind of fatalism [which I don't think he is doing] what is the ultimate message here other than enjoy life and make it your own? That's hardly anything radical. To me what makes the play really stand out is the whimsy of the second act where Rice is clearly having fun with his play. So, maybe that's why my thought after the play wasn't one of "Man, that was really deep" but one of "that was really clever and cute." In underground theatre Im sure that is anathema but I say there is nothing wrong with being clever, cute, and whimsical. Now come on, let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty.

* Thanks Karen Lawrence for the correction

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