Review: "The Machine Stops" Offers a Faithful and Eye-Catching Sci-Fi Adaptation

The Machine Stops

Adapted and directed by Kevin Ray

Presented by KEVIN RAY | WORKS at the The Mark O'Donnell Theater at the Entertainment Community Fund Arts Center

160 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn, NYC

January 27-February 5, 2023

L to R: Lya Lanne, Rachel Rhea Shannon, Augustus W. Cook II, & John Teresi. Photo by Jonathan Levin.

English writer E. M. Forster's (1879-1970) 1909 dystopian science fiction story "The Machine Stops" includes much that now seems prescient, albeit necessarily and interestingly limited by its era: videoconferencing and music or literature at the push of a button make appearances, for instance, but that these or any other technologies could be wireless was clearly still unthinkable. The story may also strike audiences as having gained additional contemporary resonance in how its characters' physical isolation; disinclination to touch one another; and system of, as the narrative puts it, bringing things to people rather than people to things echo the experience of living in lockdown. A new theatrical version of "The Machine Stops," directed and adapted by Kevin Ray and devised in collaboration with the production's cast and creative team, marries captivating visual creativity with fidelity to Forster's words to bring this classic of speculative fiction to the stage.

In The Machine Stops, humanity lives underground, having written off the world's surface as no longer able to support life. Individuals worldwide live alone in small hexagonal cells, beholden to the globe-spanning Machine for their needs and desires. Want some standardized artificial food? Press a button? Want to move around your cell? Your armchair will move you. Drop something? The floor itself will rise up to return it to your grasp. Suffice to say, yes, we are in Wall•E territory here. (The ostensible control of everything by a Central Committee and the abolition of religion and the nuclear family would seem to map rather easily onto a critique of socialism–although this obtains equally for a number of literary utopias as well–though the homogeneity of the whole world, every place being the same as every other place, sounds like nothing so much as our own period of capitalist globalization.) Not long after we meet a woman named Vashti (Rachel Rhea Shannon, bringing some sympathetic touches to the character), her son Kuno (an excellent Uki Pavlovic) threatens to disrupt her comfortable routine of calling friends to exchange any new "ideas," remotely attending and giving so-called lectures, and not leaving her room. Kuno contacts Vashti to ask her to take an airship to visit him on the other side of the world so that he may have a face-to-face conversation with her. With much reluctance and strong misgivings–propriety, as is often if not always the case, acts as an oppressive enforcement mechanism in this civilization–she acquiesces, and what Kuno reveals to her holds ramifications not only for his own personal future but also for that of humankind as a whole.    

L to R: Rachel Rhea Shannon and Uki_Pavlovic. Photo by Jonathan Levin.
The production renders Vashti and Kuno's environment in shades of gray and white, allowing for some moments of striking use of color and of contrast with the world outside of the Machine, including at one point watching the color drain from everything as we return underground. The show makes outstanding use of projections, puppetry, and silhouette work in presenting the narrative's set pieces, inventively maintaining a sense of immersion and scale. Alongside Shannon and Pavlovic, Lya Yanne, John Teresi, and Augustus W. Cook II round out the proficient cast as both a narrative chorus and some secondary characters. The adaptation also smartly transfers parts of the story's omniscient narration to the characters themselves, and has Kuno shift to telling directly to the audience the long story that he recounts to Vashti when she visits him. The few minor additions to the text enhance character moments, and there are some equally minor cuts, such as material about Wessex and the overthrow of the Danes, an alteration that usefully decouples the play from a specifically English history.

The dream of eternal progress, our adaptability to ever worsening conditions, and our inability to conceive that things might not go on as they are remain as symptomatic of the West as they were in 1909 (all of these are pertinent, for instance, to the climate catastrophe in which we are currently embroiled), helping to make The Machine Stops a timely, absorbing piece of theatrical science fiction. Those who live under the auspices of the Machine have an aversion to direct experience, and one lecturer (Cook) even proposes that knowledge gets better the further is it removed from its source and the more it is filtered through layers of commentary and interpretation (the satire here should probably make both social media enthusiasts and academics, for example, feel uncomfortable).The preference for second-hand over first-hand experience and tenth-hand over second-hand is a clear marker of the Machine's world as a dystopia. So, in other words, don't take our mediating word for any of this, but go and have the direct experience of The Machine Stops for yourself.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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