By Ian Rigg
There are tools, and there are machines. A shovel is a tool. A bulldozer is a machine. And the bold new take on Adding Machine, produced by The Hypocrites, asserts that man is a tool. Society is a machine.
Adding Machine is a bleak, Brechtian work. With music by Joshua Schmidt, and book and lyrics by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt, it is based off of Elmer Rice‘s 1923 play. Rice and his contemporaries wrote politicized plays, dependent on the audience’s reflective detachment. In the vein of Brecht, Adding Machine is a drama about a person, and about people and yet primarily about neither. It follows the life (and afterlife) of Mr. Zero.
Mr. Zero is a man going through the motions. He lives (or rather, exists) in a life of quotidian horror. He hates his life, hates his wife and yet he hasn’t missed a day of work in 25 years. He adds numbers, and he adds heap upon heap of mounting dread to the compost pile where his soul should be. Wake up, go to work, come home, take off your coat, eat dinner, pretend to listen to wife, go to bed, wake up, go to work, come home, take off your coat, eat dinner, pretend to listen to wife, have passionless sex, go to bed, rinse, lather, repeat. He is a rusted cog in an ever-churning machine. He is a background character of his own story. He is exhausted, yet his contemporaries (the majority of whom, like him, possess numbers rather than names) show no fatigue. The gears keep turning, oiled by his misery.
He would be pitiful, were he not so vile. He is a milquetoast, misogynist, myopic man who thinks he’s owed something greater. Oh, it’s never his fault he’s unhappy. It’s all the fault of minorities, or the girl he works with but never makes a move, or his shrill wife who despises him as much as he despises her, or the boss giving him a pink slip instead of a promotion when Mr. Zero is replaced by a machine “a high school girl can operate” on his 25th anniversary at the company. Like his own profession, the little slights and micro-aggressions and resentment keep adding and adding and adding, equaling murder when he kills his boss with the bill file he toiled over. The show suggests that capitalism is conflict, and audiences will witness conflict aplenty in this vicious, vivacious cabaret.
From the moment the audience walks in, they are absorbed into an atonal, aethereal, austere abstraction of America. Mr. Zero sits with his back to the audience, nearly inert, a moment of toil indistinguishable from the rest of his bitter life. A tuning note drones intermittently, not often enough to be annoying, but just often enough to be maddening. Above the jagged brick wall, the haze of industry hangs over the only natural light. Director Geoff Button has conceived a truly dystopian, dim, drab, despondent, deranged, dark, delightful to watch macrocosm. He pulls it off with aplomb.
His production team is a marvelous machine on its own. Adding Machine is an American work, about America, but The Hypocrites’ rendition is German Expressionism meets Philip Glass, equal parts Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis and Laurie Anderson‘s O Superman. The stark and smart scenic design of Lauren Nigri, the bleak and occasionally kaleidoscopic lighting design of Mike Durst, the unique uniforms of costume designer Izumi Inaba, the properties collection culled by Eleanor Kahn, the booming sound design of Joe Court and Brandon Reed and the incredible invention helmed by technical director Jacob Palmer, all work in tandem to illustrate an insidious, industrial world.
The name of the game is repetition, repetition, repetition, and precision, precision, precision. Choreographer Katie Spelman propels this machine with her clinical yet shamanistic movement, unique and unnerving, rousingly robotic. She even makes sure the ensemble moves almost exclusively in 90 degree angles. Matt Deitchman‘s musical direction is so crisp, the dynamics so in sync, that he may well be a puppeteer controlling his musical marionettes. Audiences will leave haunted by the words “In numbers, the truth can be revealed.”
The cast is a magnificent machine, firing on all cylinders. Jonah D. Winston, Laura McClain, John Taflan and Tyler Brown utterly commit to their parts, at once mundane and macabre. Living embodiments of the uncanny valley effect, the automatons approximate human behavior with an at once unfeeling and malevolent fervor. Under Button’s deft direction, they are hypnotizing and repugnant to behold. The entire ensemble excels at uniformity, and yet some stand out for the right reasons.
Bear Bellinger shines as Shrdlu, a self-proclaimed sinner with a sibilant ‘s.’ He alternates between subdued and snapping, but always maintains his intense gaze, his voice like faded velvet. Andres Enriquez is impeccable as the enigmatic bossman, deftly morphing from an avatar of avarice to something far more sinister, with the mustache and three-piece plaid suit to match.
Patrick Du Laney and Kelli Harrington are utterly contemptible but utterly compelling as the Zeroes, two cogs who cannot connect. With a tremendous power and command of her voice, Harrington harangues her husband with complete commitment, and occasionally gets to peel back the layers of contempt to reveal a shadow of insecurity, sentiment and sensitivity. She is harping, hilarious, and worthy of praise.
It is unmistakably Patrick Du Laney‘s show, even if (or especially if) he doesn’t speak or sing for about the first 10 minutes. As Mr. Zero, he is a ten. He doesn’t shy away from the character’s reprehensible attributes, and even evinces that there are some good qualities, or at least eminently watchable ones. He has a quiet command of the stage, with mounting confusion and desperation, dread and despair coloring his face at any given moment. He effortlessly changes it into an uproarious command of the stage when years of resentment and rage come thundering out of him. He is truly a titan.
But who should by no means be overlooked is the character Mr. Zero overlooks, Daisy. Neala Barron is a titan, too. If there is a heart in this show, it’s hers, and it’s breaking under her queasy charm and actualized accent. Barron is mousy, melancholy, melodious, with a voice she can turn from -2 to 13 with grace. The scenes between Daisy and Mr. Zero are some of the best in the show, standing out with their subtlety and sincerity. Barron + Du Laney = theatrical magic.
The plot culminates in a twist ending that reveals that, just like its protagonist, the show is much more than it seems, and yet also far less. Audiences will know enough addition to add hand plus hand to equal thunderous applause. The Hypocrites put on a peculiar, perplexing, phenomenal production about the 20th century, but perhaps its biggest strength is that it couldn’t feel more timely. Everyone in the audience will know a Mr. Zero. There may be a Mr. Zero they avoid talking to at Thanksgiving. Whether in his world or ours, Mr. Zero is one of many disaffected, disillusioned, despondent people who the machine chewed up until all they could wonder was “Where’s my prize?” The mounting malcontent of the Zeroes has grown into a political movement. Misled about the engines of their own oppression, they blame entire ethnic groups and flock to a demagogue who spouts their regressive rhetoric, who profits off their prejudice, who promises to make them great again and bids them welcome. Welcome to the machine.
The Hypocrites presents “Adding Machine” Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 15 at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets ($36, $15 for students, $18 for groups of 8 or more) are available online here.