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The Creationists

Speculative play re-imagines historical fictions of science and the science in fictions

Bond Streetplayers bring Captain Walton and Mary Shelley to speculative life.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 4/1/2009

The Mechanical

By Michael McGuigan

Through April 5 at the Theatre Project

The Turk, or the Automaton Chess Player, was one of the mechanical wonders of the world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Frankenstein's monster, a character created by Mary Shelley in a novel first published in 1818, is one of science's most frightful cautionary tales. What if Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the monster's creator, and Wolfgang von Kempelen, the Turk's builder, were to meet? The Mechanical, written and directed by Michael McGuigan of New York's Bond Street Theater, explores this question in a ragtag play whose visionary scope is alternately delightful and frustrating.

The Mechanical is speculative historical theater, mixing historical facts, unlikely coincidences, and fictional encounters whose richness presupposes a familiarity with the mechanical inventors and hucksters of two centuries ago. If it were in book form, this story would be captivating, as McGuigan puts his imaginative faculties in the service of creating encounters between people and things that are surprisingly plausible.

For example, late in the story Ludwig Van Beethoven--played by Jill-of-all-trades, and Bond Street Theater founder, Joanna Sherman--gets involved in a copyright spat over a piece of music with Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (Richard Newman), who is credited with inventing the metronome, which Beethoven used to great effect. Why is this in the play? Mälzel toured with the Turk in Europe and the United States after Kempelen's death in 1804.

The play overflows with moments alluding to odd coincidences such as this and, in fact, a half-hour's worth of internet browsing after seeing this play convinces you of the worth of the play's contents. But McGuigan also wants to explore the pathos of his characters, which he does less successfully.

The play's minimalist staging and scenery helps hold it together, but it also allows McGuigan to make dramatic shortcuts that prevent it from reaching the heights the actors are clearly capable of reaching. In the center of the stage is a large cabinet--a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities--through which many of the actors enter and exit. This jack-in-the-box like staging allows Meghan Frank to transform seamlessly from Mary Shelley's corpse to Shelley's central female character, Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein's sister, without a hitch.

McGuigan deserves credit for inventing this clever, if quite literal deus ex machina, but he falters by making it a literal cabinet in a condemned theater in the scenes that open and close the play, which gives The Mechanical a fantastical, dream-like structure that, given its content, feels unnecessary. The genius of the Turk was not so much its secret--many people suspected a human was behind the machine--as it was the possibilities it presented for a world overwhelmed by change. The detractors of the Turk, using scientific reasoning of the time, argued that the Turk had to be a fraud because it was impossible for a machine to beat a human in chess. Two centuries later, we're not sure what it is machines can't do better than humans.

The play answers its own question in one of its best moments, when Brian Foley, who plays both Dr. Frankenstein and Kempelen, suggests that only humans will be able to admire creation, whether it is made by them or by machines. Foley's stand-out performance in both roles recalls other self-confident scientist/magicians that have been seen in recent years, including Edward Norton's character in The Illusionist.

Likewise, Joshua Wynter performs triple-duty as the head of the construction crew assigned to tear down a theater, Frankenstein's monster, and the person who hides in the Turk's cabinet. Both he and Foley are able to keep their multiple roles separate from one another while allowing the audience to make the connections between their very different characters.

The play is also layered with comic bits, with Sherman and Anna Zastrow serving as court jesters and choruses that help keep the play grounded and entertaining. As broadly funny as the performances are, poking fun at everything from the high courts of Europe to the ballyhoo of 19th-century America, The Mechanical might work even more successfully if it didn't also try to play for laughs.

What is most startling about the play is that it presents two possibilities for science--human-like automatons that can excel at chess and biological monsters that can feel and kill--and you can understand the threats they posed to society because they are even more real today. While some people try to close the cabinet door on innovation, you know that it will, someday, open again, presenting terrors for a world still not ready for them.

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