The name The Machine might lead you to expect a well-oiled piece of theatrical equipment, smoothly turning out a product anyone can use. Youd do better to think of Jean Tinguelys La Cascade, the Carillon Building sculpture with gears and lights and bicycle wheels and triangles. The parts go together in some quirky way, but they never repeat patterns and you can make of them what you will.
One character begins Mums the Word, which opened Thursday at Duke Energy Theatre, by whispering advice into a microphone at the side of the stage: Dont try too hard to get it. His companion chimed in: Im not sure theres anything to get.
So maybe the play attacks Americans narrow view of the world, and maybe it doesnt. Perhaps it indicts imperialism or comments sadly on the decline of United States supremacy. (Or not so sadly.) Perhaps its a dreamscape where were not always sure where to put our feet, philosophically speaking. Or its just weird.
I embrace Machine (formerly called Machine Theatre) because no one else locally works the same way. The company gets together a small group of idea mongers to create a play. (Nine collaborators developed Mum.) They build shows through many drafts: Mum has been around since 2010 and will evolve after this run.
Machine went on hiatus more than two years ago, after founder-director Matt Cosper went to Portland. He returned last year, and this one-act comedy is the companys first theatrical presentation since then. Its slightly slightly more of a traditional narrative than you might expect from Machine.
A wife who seems to be wandering in her wits (Lauren Dortch Crozier) decides she wants to adopt a baby from war-torn Africa. Her husband (Robert Lee Simmons), a depressed and distant guy fueled by pills and alcohol, puts up token opposition, even when the new arrival is a teenaged Somali pirate (Biniam Tekola, a welcome New York import).
Segments stand alone but also fit together loosely. In one, the mother sits little Tyler down to explain her family history. I was born and raised in Alabama, on a farm way back up in the woods . Eventually, Clarence Carter comes over the sound system, singing his classic recording of Patches.
Is this a comment on boring white peoples desire to invent more interesting lives, especially when talking to blacks? A criticism of the ways whites have co-opted African-American culture? Or just a goof?
Mum offers multiple clues that its theme is the sunset of America: Weve deluded ourselves for too long about our importance, and we dont know how to relate to the rest of the world, especially the nonwhite part. But the only sure thing is that the actors embrace the ambiguity and madness with craft and energy. Whether or not they get it all themselves, I have no idea.
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