photo by Sham Sthakiya
Manufacturing Mischief is a puppet play “by Pedro Reyes, written by Paul Hufker.” It’s not clear what those credits mean, but Mr Reyes is apparently the progenitor. It presents us with a discussion of artificial intelligence and other topics, and it’s really smart. We meet Steve Jobs, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Ayn Rand and other luminaries. They’re woven together in a plot that’s just as complex and silly as it should be. It has something to do with a machine that materializes the author of whatever book is put into it - thus Marx, Rand and some of the others.
The script trivializes the characters as only puppetry can. When Chomsky is confronted by Rand, his student tells him “Use complicated logic to confuse her.” But it’s educated as well. When Musk tells Chomsky that someday “We’ll have AI who understand the world,” Chomsky replies “But not their place in it or the value of it.”
Donald Trump appears in the play as a small puppet, out of place, certainly, with his betters. Rand says that she knew him in the 80’s. When told that he’s the President now, she says “The laughing stock usually outlives the joke.” Great!
The puppets are very handsome, particularly the unmistakable Karl Marx and Ayn Rand.
The script, then, is really smart and clever. Unfortunately, it’s poorly executed. The lines are nicely animated, but the puppeteers’ diction, the foreign accents and the poor sound system, make them sometimes difficult to understand, so that the story is difficult to follow and we have to content ourselves with disconnected moments of clarity.
Worse, most of the puppeteers are woman, and they often voice the male puppets. Puppetry distances the drama - that’s part of the point. But a woman voicing a male puppet distances it beyond retrieval. What’s more, it makes it difficult to know which puppet is speaking.
The puppet show’s rhythm fails to engage us. Moreover, Marx has a German accent and Rand has a Russian accent, but the puppeteer voicing Trump doesn’t even attempt the stupid, condescending speech pattern we know so well.
The puppet theater on the stage is designed so that the people in the front row can hardly see the puppets, who are above them. The evening I attended, the house manager didn’t open most of the good seats, at the back of the raked theater, until the poor seats had been taken. The audience that evening was largely quiet - which was a good sign - but the Tank’s staff person sat up back laughing and whooping.
Manufacturing Mischief, then, points the way for educated adult puppetry. It’s been in the works, we were told, for ten years and has been produced elsewhere. It’s hard to understand why The Flea’s production isn’t more successful.