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The Adding Machine 

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Hystopolis Puppet Theatre

Puppet shows for adults are not without precedent, although we tend to think of them as kiddie fare nowadays. In recent history the Bobby Clark puppet troupe attempted to stage adult revues with marionettes (a curvaceous marionette doing a striptease is about as adult as you can get), but for any thriving puppeteering tradition, we must look to the Bunraku, one of the major forms of Japanese theater.

One would think that The Adding Machine would be the perfect vehicle for a puppet production. Elmer Rice's 1923 play has a simple enough plot, which warns of the dangers of increasing automation by tracing the life and death of everyman Mr. Zero. The original production was a landmark in American expressionist drama, utilizing a set that consisted of a huge adding machine upon which employees crawled like ants.

Taking the expressionism a step further through the use of puppets seems so logical an idea, it's surprising that Hystopolis should be the first troupe to do it. Without the limitations of human physiology (when the character called only the "Fixer" details the advantages of machines over humans, do the puppets cheer?) the nagging of Mrs. Zero can be illustrated by having her mouth literally follow her beleaguered husband around the room. The sinister Fixer can be represented by a truly eerie creature--part scorpion, part skeleton, and part snake. The faces of the various puppets, which were designed by the ensemble, appear to be based on Picasso's early abstract paintings--with a bit of Ernst, Dali, and, incredibly, Ralph Bakshi thrown in--and their grotesque masks manage to somehow convey a greater range of expression than one might expect.

In the Bunraku tradition the operators of the various puppets appear in plain sight, draped in black to better enable us not to "see" them. I'm not exactly sure how to critique an acting performance by a puppet, but Mr. Zero's voice (John Gegenhuber) and operators succeed admirably in making him a recognizable and sympathetic hero, and the character named Shrdlu has the most gracefully expressive hands I've seen onstage in many a month. Human actors, take note.


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