Innovation has its price, and the liberties Denver director Jeremy Cole has taken with The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice's famous 1923 experiment in expressionism, may not please purists entirely. But you have to hand it to Cole; he has found exciting ways to translate the dated designs of expressionism into contemporary and utterly scathing terms. His outrageous welding of electronic media and theater reflects trends in performance art, and his use of classic film clips to expand and illustrate the play's ideas is ingenious.
Tough stuff, this. Rice was an idealist who lamented economic and political tyranny over the individual in all his plays. It may not have taken a crystal ball to foresee the mechanistic direction big business would take through the twentieth century, since it was a direct result of the industrialization of the nineteenth. But it did take courage to expose how human beings could be reduced to cogs in the corporate wheel.
Of course, the adding machine is a primitive tool compared with the computer, and while Rice's essential message is still relevant, Cole had to find a new way of delivering it. A large video screen and several small monitors dot the theater. A particularly amusing computer console has been set up with arms and multiple screens to represent a technology beyond the grave. And to underscore just how lost the play's protagonist is, Cole incorporates poetry by modern masters to express what is best in the human spirit. The contrast is sometimes stunning and always engaging.
The story concerns a Mr. Zero, who's married to an obnoxious shrew and works in an undisclosed nightmare business adding and checking figures. We see him at home with the Mrs., and her constant chatter and his dumb acquiescence indicate that his will, his personality and his intelligence have all been repressed. At the office, we learn of a mild flirtation with Miss Devore--but after 25 years on the job together, they no longer feel anything much but weary. Miss Devore dreams of kisses and suicide, while Zero fantasizes about success.
When Zero's boss (who appears only as a voice) abruptly replaces the loyal Zero with an adding machine, Zero loses it. Arriving home for his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, he is carted off by the police. "I killed my boss this afternoon," he tells his wife matter-of-factly. At his trial he expresses some remorse for the murder but tries to explain the inevitability of his action.
After his execution, he meets an intriguing video ghost before winding up in the Elysian fields of the afterlife. There he runs into Miss Devore (who killed herself just so she could join him) and learns that his new neighbors are a flock of artists, poets and thinkers. Surrounded by such decadence, he retreats to a corner of the twilight zone where he can work on an adding machine and await reincarnation.
Zero doesn't really want to go back, and the Lieutenant who convinces him to return to mortality seems a sinister character indeed. Who would want to return to such a life? But then, Zero is not worthy of heaven, either. He can neither love nor enjoy life or art. His only desire is endless mind-numbing labor. Well, somebody has to serve the totalitarian masters. James Maxwell makes a lumbering bear of a Zero, projecting dumb misery and quiet desperation. It's a surprisingly affecting performance--Zero is not a sympathetic character, so the sympathy he does arouse in the viewer comes in appreciating the depth of his repression. The working-class accent Maxwell assumes, however, gets in his way from time to time and does the character little service.
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Kelly Jo Little as Mrs. Zero is excruciatingly mean-spirited--and terrific. So's her counterpart, Terry Ann Watts, who shines as the ditzy, boob-adjusting Daisy Devore. Doug Vincent plays a variety of roles and carries on a running commentary with the Stage Manager (Jack Barbera), who runs the sound and video together right in front of the audience in performance-art fashion. Vincent is a particularly amusing and lively presence throughout.
In a deliciously sardonic move, Cole has also brought in clips from Hollywood films--Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a remake of The Jazz Singer, Metropolis, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Wizard of Oz and Cinema Paradiso. His inclusion of works by the poets W.H. Auden, Miller Williams, Robert Frost and Stephen Spender is welcome, and finally even inspiring, despite the grim message of the piece.
But then Cole's version, while just as alarming as Rice's, is somewhat more hopeful. Zero, after all, refuses the Elysian fields. And that means that, despite suffering the apparent predestination of a working-class bloke, he does have something of a choice.
The Adding Machine, through September 28 at the Guild Theatre, 4840 Sterling Drive, Boulder, 499-5552.