The Adding Machine

Hystopolis Productions

at Red Hen Productions

Hystopolis Productions is probably the best puppet theater you’ve never heard of. Established more than 20 years ago, it’s come up with brilliant productions of distinctly adult material like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But its shows have been few and far between, with lapses between them of as much as six years.

One of those successes, first produced in 1989, was a sensitive, intelligent, visually daring version of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine. This expressionistic send-up of white-collar life circa 1923 turned out to be ideally suited to a puppet interpretation, and not just because the play’s protagonists–an awful pair of lower-middle-class urban dwellers, Mr. and Mrs. Zero–are essentially puppets of a system that means them no good. Puppetry also heightens the best qualities of Rice’s script: the cartoonish characters, hard-boiled dialogue, and short, comic-strip-like scenes.

The play was well received, both in Chicago, where it was staged in an old funeral home turned performance space on North Avenue, and elsewhere, including the 1992 Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. These productions might have been the start of something big, but instead of a quick follow-up there was litigious infighting, and at about the same point the troupe lost its home.

By the time the folks at Hystopolis produced their next show–Ubu Roi in 1996–there was another puppet theater in town, Redmoon. It proved much more prolific than Hystopolis and much more adept at playing the games of publicity, politics, and grantsmanship and at seeking strategic alliances, most notably with Steppenwolf. All Hystopolis had going for it was a level of polish, inventiveness, and stylistic sophistication unknown to Redmoon, which favors a slapdash faux-naive aesthetic. I’ve sometimes thought that all Redmoon’s puppets, gorgeous as they often are, could be interchangeable–Ahab could reappear as Frankenstein’s monster or the protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. By contrast Hystopolis puppets feel tailor-made for each show. The stylized designs created for Ubu Roi, variations on the loathsome drawings Jarry included with his manuscript, were utterly unlike the more realistic doll-like puppets used in Dracula in 2002.

All of the puppets in this production, designed by Michael Schwabe and Lawrence Basgall, are brand-new, with artfully abstracted faces. Mrs. Zero is little more than a long curl extending from the top of her absurd hair to the bottom of her lips, which are always pursed in disapproval. This ingenious design underscores both her shallowness–she obsesses about her hair–and basic unattractiveness, a quality heightened by her gray hue. Mr. Zero isn’t much better. As drab as his wife, he has a face like a bent penny, with large, dull eyes, a blob of a nose, and a dyspeptic grimace for a mouth. Likewise the puppet representing Mr. Zero’s boss looks like a giant steam whistle, an image at once hilarious and frightening. We’re not surprised when this character, belching smoke, tells Mr. Zero that he’s been laid off after 25 years at the same tiresome job, replaced by an adding machine.

Rice’s story could easily have been splashed across the front page of a tabloid: low-level employee gets the chair for killing his boss. Yet the playwright’s self-consciously artful style has a lot in common with the experimental approach of Jazz Age writers like E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos. Not content merely to tell the tale of the murderous Mr. Zero–his empty marriage, boring job, deadly dull friends–Rice follows him into the afterlife. Here Zero suffers from the same limitations that made his life miserable: prudery, love of deadening routine, and fear of strong emotion.

The scenic backgrounds are also perfectly suited to Rice’s play. Each of the ten scenes in this experimental work has a different style. Some, like the opening one between Mr. and Mrs. Zero, are essentially long monologues. Others, such as a romantic dialogue in the elysian fields, are rendered in a lush, almost florid style. Some lines suggest the harsh New York accent that Judy Holliday would later make her signature. Other characters speak in an odd high-literary style that sets them apart as eccentrics and loners. These different approaches are echoed in Schwabe’s set designs. Some are spare, little more than black boxes surrounding the puppets. Others are filled with rich imagery. The graveyard scene, for example, conflates a lonely hillside filled with headstones with the three crosses on Golgotha.

All this may sound cold and aestheticized, a 90-minute intellectual exercise showing us, once again, how alienating the modern world is. But Rice gives Mr. Zero a chance for redemption in the scene set in the elysian fields, where he meets a woman from his office who’s secretly yearned for him. Their exchange suggests the only moment of genuine communication in the play, introducing a warmth otherwise missing. The Hystopolis production heightens this warmth with a set bursting with flowers and with moving performances revealing that even a Zero has a heart.

Friends and fans of actor-director Dale Calandra gather later this month to celebrate his recovery from a life-threatening illness after a lengthy hospital stay this spring. Calandra–an off-Loop veteran whose credits include directing Center Theater’s memorable Lysistrata 2411 A.D. and impersonating Allen Ginsberg in Remains Theatre’s 1991 production The Chicago Conspiracy Trial–will be feted Saturday, July 26, at 7 PM at the Pot Shop, 1224 Chicago, Evanston. Admission is free, but donations to defray the costs of hospitalization are appreciated.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/MichaelBronner.