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Fun With Paranoia 

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Big-Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination

Theater Oobleck, at the Splinter Group Studio

Feerie for Another Time

Rigadoon Theater Cartel, at the Splinter Group Studio

The postmodern techno-fantasy that technology turns free will and moral agency into obsolete curiosities has already degenerated into an alarmist cliche: we're envisioned as mindless, grinning drones worshiping the instrument of our own evisceration. Gloomy tomes lament the decline of "reality," then their authors convene on somber panels to have their words of wisdom entombed in Harper's. And now that the Internet's tendrils have penetrated the sanctuary of the suburban American single-family home, we can expect the consternation to increase tenfold.

But it takes courage and creativity for a theater artist to engage this fantasy onstage; the risk of boring the pants off an audience runs high. Fortunately Danny Thompson, author and star of Big-Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, has enough of both to keep his audience in their trousers for 45 wildly entertaining minutes. His ingeniously conceived paranoid delusion--part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival (and offered next weekend, September 1 and 2, at the Lunar Cabaret and the Splinter Group Studio)--reminds us that the human mind, not the computer chip, has the imagination.

Big-Tooth High-Tech Megatron opens with an inspired bit of inanity. Thompson "hides" behind a gray box that wouldn't conceal a four-year-old, then begins one of the worst puppet shows imaginable: a yellow fabric gingerbread man and a red Scotch-plaid terrier drone on and on in cloying, squeaky voices about how hot it is (which, in Splinter Group's un-air-conditioned studio, is no fantasy). Then a limo played by a ratty shoulder bag pulls up, and out pops a sputtering Mayor Daley, played by a package of Oscar Mayer bologna.

The moronic puppet show suddenly collapses when Thompson admits he's forgotten his lines. "I usually have an outline taped to the back of the box," he explains. "I don't have one tonight. But--I could print one out real quick." He rushes across the stage to uncover a home computer system that not only talks but insists he address it politely. When Thompson tries to access his script, the computer tells him that he has 743 messages and that the "Danny Better Efficiency Program" requires him to answer his messages before starting any new work.

Things get worse. The computer reminds him that his MacArthur grant was due at 5 o'clock but won't let him open the file, saying, "I cannot allow you to delude yourself." The computer demands to see Thompson's grant video, and when he puts it on, his video alter ego has rewritten the puppet show from top to bottom. "Your video camera has auto-discretion," the televised Thompson explains. "You can't keep up with your camera." Meanwhile the computer is rewriting his grant application.

Thompson's technocratic nightmare twists reality by a mere increment. If our cameras can focus themselves and set their own recording levels, why shouldn't they be able to generate their own images? If our computers can correct spelling and grammar, why shouldn't they write their own stories? As the play progresses, the computer and the video-Thompson--and even the floor lamp--team up to take over the theater, kick the real Thompson offstage, and bring the house manager on in his place. The house manager, played by Oobleck dynamo David Isaacson, is the perfect obsequious functionary: he informs us in his speech before the play, "I am authorized to tell you to enjoy the show." He may as well be a computerized hologram, he's so perfectly suited to this piece generated and controlled by inanimate objects.

At this point Thompson's real agenda becomes clear. He's not interested in creating a paranoid electronic fantasy for its own sake. Rather, he creates this world to comment on the theater itself, lampooning the American love affair with high-tech stage effects (the falling chandelier, the landing helicopter, the shimmering swimming pool). The typical Broadway smash runs like a machine with human actors only incidentally filling in. Yet the video-Thompson, trying to coax Isaacson onstage, coos hypocritically: "It's spontaneous! It's what live theater is all about!" The stage manager responds, utterly deadpan, "I wouldn't know anything about that."

Big-Tooth High-Tech Megatron is itself a stunning piece of electronic wizardry, especially when the computer, the video-Thompson, and the real Thompson begin arguing. But Thompson never wastes any time congratulating himself on his technical expertise--more often than not he makes fun of it. When video-Isaacson tries to read from a piece of paper on the other side of the stage, for example, he leans forward and squints. When he wants a kiss from the live actor, he puckers up to the camera. The effect, reinforced by the intentionally hokey acting, is magnificently cheesy.

Although this performance must have been carefully orchestrated, it doesn't feel the least bit mechanical. Because the story Thompson tells is absurdly unpredictable, and because every ten minutes the style of the piece seems to change, the evening feels spontaneous and playful. In contrast to all the doomsayers, Thompson shows just how much fun you can have in cyber-prison.

By contrast, there's not an ounce of fun to be had from another Rhinoceros Theater Festival offering, Rigadoon Theater Cartel's Feerie for Another Time, based on the life and work of French physician, author, and general misanthrope Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Of course, you don't expect a guy who writes books with titles like Death on the Installment Plan and School for Corpses to put on big floppy shoes and entertain at parties. But by staging Welsh poet Owen Partch's 1946 play about Celine, Feerie for Another Time, Rigadoon has created the theatrical equivalent of hell week at the Citadel.

In quasi-expressionist manner, Celine wears a black trench coat and perpetual snarl, staggers about wincing at everything and everyone, and occasionally makes gloomy pronouncements like "There is no one who can resist death or find protection against it." The good doctor also gets to inspect a Nazi's festering anal infection before he lands in jail, where he laments, "The teeth are ready to drop out. Then there's the piles and the lumbago." A handful of bizarre peripheral characters--including Mata Hari and a talking parrot--appear before us or in silhouette behind a screen, speaking in non sequiturs. All this and 100-degree heat too. School for corpses, indeed.

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