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Advice to The Machine: Keep 'Mum'

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    ‘Mum’s the Word’

    The Machine returns with a dark comedy about an affluent, dissatisfied Charlotte couple that tries to adopt a baby from an African country but ends up with a teenaged Somali pirate.

    WHEN: Through Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.

    WHERE: Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

    RUNNING TIME: 70 minutes.

    TICKETS: $20.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.carolinatix.org.



The name The Machine might lead you to expect a well-oiled piece of theatrical equipment, smoothly turning out a product anyone can use. You’d do better to think of Jean Tinguely’s “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 “Mum’s the Word,” which opened Thursday at Duke Energy Theatre, by whispering advice into a microphone at the side of the stage: “Don’t try too hard to ‘get’ it.” His companion chimed in: “I’m not sure there’s anything to ‘get.’ ”

So maybe the play attacks Americans’ narrow view of the world, and maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps it indicts imperialism or comments sadly on the decline of United States supremacy. (Or not so sadly.) Perhaps it’s a dreamscape where we’re not always sure where to put our feet, philosophically speaking. Or it’s 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 company’s first theatrical presentation since then. It’s 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 people’s 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: We’ve deluded ourselves for too long about our importance, and we don’t 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.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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