By Pedro Reyes, Script by Paul Hufker; Directed by Meghan Finn
Off Off Broadway, Puppetry
Runs through 6.24.18
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street
by Ran Xia on 6.11.18
Karl Marx, Tiny Donald Trump, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, and Ayn Rand in Manufacturing Mischief. Photo by Sham Sthankiya.
BOTTOM LINE: A show that elaborates some of the deepest, most relevant issues in technology and humanity in the silliest way possible, and gets real with the ultimate question: is Elon Musk a robot?
In this improbable tale, former MIT professor—scratch that—renowned linguist—scratch that—America's Top Dissident, Noam Chomsky, gets summoned to be a judge at a competition for new Artificial Intelligence devices "Brought to you by SpaceX (and other dark forces of the underworld)." Our host of the evening? Well, there behind the podium, wearing a grey turtleneck and holding an apple, is none other than the algorithm-generated ghost, or more accurately, simulation, of Steve Jobs (who also serves as the narrator of the play).
Let's face it, I wouldn't be surprised if the real Steve Jobs returns from the beyond, appearing on gadget screens everywhere with a Jimmy-Moriarty-From-Sherlock style "MISS ME?" arranged in Garamond. I mean, think about it, if anybody could've managed to upload himself into the cloud, Jobs would've been first in line, henceforth achieving literal godhood. After all, in a world where our new religion is "Am-a-ZON," as rapper Karl Marx so aptly put it (yeah that happened and it's as glorious as you might imagine), the modern mythos increasingly imitates the plot of a Vonnegut novel.
The man behind the expo, we soon discover, is Elon Musk, AKA Tony Stark IRL, AKA The Technical Boy who's broken out of the pages of American Gods, AKA the guy who's one failed experiment away from the super-villainy that comes with a Marvel franchise. Millie Persistington (a play on "She Persisted," perhaps), one of Chomsky's former pupils, comes into the mix with her invention "Print-A Friend": in goes Atlas Shrugged, out comes Ayn Rand, reanimated, incinerating men with her withering looks and insatiable appetite (if you know what I'm talking about), and suffocating readers with her 40-page monologue. An evil plot is devised as Rand and Musk conspire to abscond with the Print-A-Friend, dreaming of world domination. Lost in transportation, the powerful gadget has no control over what is put through its complex system, so the machine's strictly analytical and honest processor reanimates more characters based on their essence: a tiny Donald Trump pops out after some rando pees into Print-A-Friend. "This guy’s a gross fucking moron" is Steve Jobs' flat assessment, in his iconic mild tone, and I've never seen an audience more delighted.
If Manufacturing Mischief at first seems to be a typical "when great power falls into the wrong hands" tale, it is also a brilliant commentary on the ethics of technological advances, as well as an in-depth exploration on how thoughts can be weaponized as propaganda, and knowledge can be a double-edged sword. Puppet Chomsky, as world-weary as his human counterpart, points out how Jewish chemist Fritz Haber's Nobel-winning cheap nitrogen fertilizer was used to kill 1.2 million people in the gas chambers. People write books to be immortal, and Print-A-Friend is really not that far from reality after Norman the Psychopath AI (created by MIT scientists, ironically and fittingly). So with the prospect of Hitler being brought back to life, Mein Kampf is a deadly weapon—not because of the limited strength of one evil man, but because of the reach of his influence, or, translating into 21st-century lingo, his Klout.
Manufacturing Mischief is the culmination of Pedro Reyes' searing insights into the current state of the world, presented in the silliest way possible, satirizing one thought-leader at a time. Writer Paul Hufker does not hold back in this keenly relevant script, and director Meghan Finn has sculpted this highly entertaining production along with its team of seasoned puppeteers. It's one of the most delightful pieces of theatre I've seen that offers debates about morality, politics, and possibly every last philosophical concept without insulting the intelligence of the audiences.
That said, you'll get the most out of this show if you're up on current events, or well-versed in philosophical science, Marxism, YouTube videos of Chomsky, and cat memes, or if you have issues with Ayn Rand that can be described as complexes. Manufacturing Mischief also tries to answer the ultimate question that has baffled us nerds everywhere: just... is Elon Musk a robot though? Yet in this age when our oppression over Alexa and Siri feels as real as the tin man's heart, maybe that's just a thought experiment.
(Manufacturing Mischief plays at The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, through June 24, 2018. The running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 3 and 8. Tickets are $35 and are available at thetanknyc.org.)
Manufacturing Mischief is by Pedro Reyes. Written by Paul Hufker. Directed by Meghan Finn. Score by Mike Cassedy. Lighting Design by Brian Aldous. Video and additional sound effects by David Pym. Stage/Production Manager is Ilana Khanin. Assistant Stage Manager is James Wyrwicz. Script Consultant is Rosalind Grush. Puppet Master and Additional Props are by Christine Schisano.
The cast is Victor Ayala, Mery Cheung, Julia Darden, Christine Schisano, and Christina Stone.