Dallas — What does freedom look like and how do we express it in a technological world that is quickly becoming less human? These are the central questions, among many other queries, that Kevin Grammer’s slick play Flower in the Machine ponders at the Ochre House Theater, in its world premiere.
In Grammer’s third theatrical creation for Ochre he riffs on the themes of work, the role of machines, and the brave new future he explored in his previous shows. Grammer (who also directs) wields a far-seeing vision, a crack creative team, and some understated yet powerful performances from his cast to elevate Flower above the muck of many sci-fi meditations.
The play focuses on the workaday lives of a Girl (Elizabeth Evans), a Boy (Trent Stephenson), and a Man (Brian Witkowicz). They go to sleep, get up, shamble off to a mundane data entry job (even lighted gloves and space shades cannot make what they do cool), return home, and then repeat. And they do just about everything attended to by robots (Ben Bryant and Erin Singleton in nuanced and uncanny performances), thus stripping them even more of their slipping humanity. The people even speak to each other through the robots as intermediaries on occasion.
It is an understatement to say they are all detached from their vocations, each other, and their environment (lived primarily indoors). Even their interactions with the “mechs” are cold. The robots perform mundane chores (dressing and undressing, brushing teeth and hair, making coffee and refilling cocktails) which the humans endure without thought, seemingly unable or unwilling to do for themselves, all the while chastising their metal helpers for their own faults: “Robot didn’t wake me up this morning,” or “the coffee is too hot/cold.”
The Girl yearns to get away from all of the machines and seek a life elsewhere. She believes she recognizes a fellow wandering soul in the Boy, himself an orphan living with his drunken uncle (the Man). Their plans threaten to go awry with the promise of promotion, financial freedom, and a microchip that controls moods.
Evans and Stephenson both show appropriately repressed and impressive range in their roles. Evans’ flat and baleful expression when first we see her transmits volumes about the soul-killing repetitiveness of their lives. Witkowicz continues to imbue his characters with enough heart and humor to improve any play, and he is particularly well-placed here. Carla Parker plays Woman (the data entry manager with a secret history) with fantastic verve and control.
Grammer’s show has an Alien, H.R. Giger-type set of grays and muted blacks in a machinery motif with nature and flower accents on some walls and a revolving dais with a reclining chair on one side and a park bench on the other (set design by Matthew Posey and scenic art by Isaac Davies). Ochre always seems to make its cozy, 50-seat theater seem expansive, yet here the diminutive size works wonders to project existential claustrophobia.
A white lab coat-wearing Trey Pendergrass provides the play’s music (think Vangelis’ synthesizer music for Blade Runner) to set the mood even more, and in a nice thematic touch, the incidental house music is The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
Albert Camus wrote “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Kudos to Grammer and company for depicting what rebellious hope looks like in an unfree world.