by Jeff Grygny
Aristotle wrote that people of different ages enjoy different genres of performance. Elderly people, he wrote, like epic poetry best. Mature people prefer tragedy. And children would much rather watch a puppet show. Machina Persona, the currently-playing original performance by the Cooperative Performance collective, sits comfortably in the last category (or we might say “cartoon,” since Aristotle knew nothing of animation.) This play is an excursion into a dimension of extreme whimsy: emphatically animated, there is so much action, so many shrieking entrances and exits, so much interplay between its archetypal characters, all gesticulating and chattering in a made-up language, that the experience is much like watching one of George Melies’ silent movies: you may not know what exactly is happening, but there’s sure a lot of it! And as all the characters are dressed in lovingly-detailed Steampunk outfits, you may feel at first that you have stumbled into a group home for asphasic cosplayers.
Amidst the Commedia del Arte pratfalls and lazzi-like antics, characters begin to emerge. They are titled by their function, like “The Pilot,” “The Engineer,” and “The Stowaway,” but they also have their invented names, which we begin to recognize. Eventually, we begin to follow the action more clearly, often leading to some chortle-raising non-verbal humor. The players are so charismatic and gosh-darn cute, it’s hard not to get caught up in their dramas, obscure though they might be. There is a large, multi-faceted vehicle which they occasionally mount and try to fly on– maybe they’re shipwrecked travelers from an alien world? But though many things happen, their interactions communicate the most. These clownish characters, all feelings, tend towards obsessive manias and are easily offended. But they can also be patient and empathetic with each other, and ultimately they play together pretty nicely. When they whip out a guitar, a mandolin, a ukulele and a Capoeira bow to play a bouncy tune (which we are encouraged to accompany on provided percussion instruments), it suddenly strikes us that these are actual people with some pretty impressive talents on display.
According to director JJ Gatesman, the action is set in “The Brain.” Gatesman began his composition by interviewing people who have experienced difficulties with communication, including a trauma victim, a person with Downs syndrome, and a “bird handler.” From these personal experiences, he and his all-in performers improvised characters and incidents that, while not representing any one person, suggest windows onto their experience. Presenting this material filtered through several layers of interpretation gives the show a sense of truthfulness; even if we can’t always follow the story, we know there is a story. Thanks to the actors’ seriousness and intensity, the emotional verities come across loud and clear. As if by accident, Machina Persona becomes a demonstration of what it means to be in a community: often complicated, usually messy, with many different agendas and needs, but optimistic that through fair-mindedness and goodwill, we can somehow muddle through. It is a refreshingly sunny perspective for our cynical times.
By all means bring your toddlers to this 70-minute fable. Don’t be put off by the rough appearance of the yet-to be-finished Arthaus—they’ll be delighted, as will anybody who can still see the world with the eyes of innocence. (Just bring a blanket, the unheated space can be chilly, even on a spring night.)
Cooperative Performance presents
conceived and directed by JJ Gatesman