Created by Pedro Reyes & written by Paul Hufker, Directed by Meghan Finn
At The Tank, NYC June 5-24, 2018
Have you realized that what your life is really missing is a puppet-Karl Marx struggling to burst out of a cake topped with a hammer and sickle? If so, you'll be happy to know that you can fill that particular existential hole with the New York premiere of Manufacturing Mischief. Conceived by Mexico City-based artist, activist, and educator Pedro Reyes, this comedy is currently serving up some all-puppet satire at The Tank, a multidisciplinary non-profit that fosters emerging artists and works to remove some of the economic barriers to the development of new work. Manufacturing Mischief takes aim at targets from toxic masculinity to our would-be technocratic overlords while maintaining a spirit of steadfast and endearing silliness.
At the outset of the play, polymath intellectual Noam Chomsky arrives, at the behest of an anonymous invitation, at the "Elite Expo," an event brought to you, a title card tells us, by SpaceX and other dark forces of the underworld. Chomsky (who, according to a New York Times interview with Reyes, both lent approval to his appearance in puppet form and suggested the inclusion of Marxist theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, of whom Reyes happened already to have a puppet), it turns out, has been solicited to attend in order to judge an invention contest -- specifically the category of devices that could either help or kill us all, a category whose apocalyptic undertones he does not fail to note. It further turns out that Millie Persistington, ardent feminist and one of his top students, has entered a device in the contest: the Print-a-Friend. To operate the Print-a-Friend, one inserts a book and out springs a copy of the person who wrote it. Behind the Expo are Steve Jobs, who has uploaded his consciousness into the cloud like a Westworld character, and Elon Musk, that purveyor of promises of civilian space travel, hyperloop transportation, and self-driving cars, with side interests in short-range flamethrowers and attacking the legitimacy of the media. Millie envisioned the device reproducing "great thinkers," but Musk instead prints Ayn Rand. He later makes off with the machine at the urging of Rand, who wants to summon more one-percenter capitalists (think William Randolph Hearst), and, well, mischief ensues. This mischief includes the generation of Tiny Trump (the Commander-in-MisChief?), who is assertively not begotten from a book; showdowns at a Wendy's and an immigrant detention center; and Rand being tripped up by both her own hypocrisy and a surprise fabrication from the Print-a-Friend.
The play makes its themes very clear: Chomsky argues with Musk, his villainous antagonist, that unchecked technological development is not inherently good in itself, citing the good intentions behind the invention of Zyklon B and Sarin as pesticides. Later, Karl Marx dresses up to rap about the dangers of A.I. and automation. Marx's is not the only song among the snappy, self-aware dialogue, up-to-the-minute jokes, and outstanding design of the puppets (brought to life by Victor Ayala, Mery Cheung, Julia Darden, Christine Schisano, and Christina Stone). The production is as willing to make jokes about Russian hooker pee as it is about linguistics, giving it a feel something like an exceptionally nerdy and historically knowledgeable episode of South Park. It ending suggests that even the most progressive among us are not immune to the lures of the narcissistic American cultural stew of capitalism, technology, and celebrity culture, and it pairs that suggestion with a blunt reminder that on this November 6, we can still affect where our nation is headed. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler