Cooperative Performance’s all-new original show Machina Persona is an endearingly social dramatic comedy. J.J. Gatesman and company hav developed a cast of six characters who exist in a dreamy, little steampunk community. Each one serves a different archetypal role in the cast...there’s an engineer and a pilot and a scientist and so on.
They’re all working together to develop a flying machine. The cast speaks to each other and (occasionally) the audience in a strange vocabulary that seems to echo English, French, Japanese and a host of other languages. The characters assert themselves in bewilderingly sophisticated social interactions between each other. There’s a central plot around which all of the characters orbit, but primarily this is a chance to hang out with a cleverly-rendered community of characters for less than an hour and a half without intermission. The very human fantasy of another world settles-in for a dazzling, little theatrical fugue. A huge budge isn’t needed for a dreamy theatrical experience. What Gatesman and company deliver here is akin to being dropped in a completely foreign community of heartwarmingly fragile people.
The archetypes represented in the cast are echoes of a tradition going back to commedia dell'arte. What J.J. Gatesman and company deliver here is so intrinsically lovable that it echoes more recent communities of endearingly cute iconic characters like the Smurfs, the Care Bears or the inhabitants of Ninjatown. Here’s a look at the cast of six:
Maura Atwood is The Stowaway--Recognizable by a smile accompanying long, flowing curly red hair. Atwood is irrepressibly happy as a newcomer to the community who hasn’t quite found a way to fit in with everyone else. Her relentlessly cheerful playfulness is a natural match for The Scientist, who is the first to truly befriend her. Atwood is irresistible as a character who brings everyone together on an emotional level.
Maya Danks is The Soldier--Recognizable by her knit cap. A formidable physical presence onstage who also appears to serve as navigator on the airship that the community is working on. More than simply authority, she seems to suffer from shadows that the others aren’t entirely aware of. Danks lends the cast a kind of active backbone without which the rest of the group dynamic isn’t quite as functional. Danks’ balance between capability and vulnerability is impressive.
Rose Grizzell as The Pilot--Recognizable by her leather aviator’s helmet and clockwork foot. As pilot of the flying machine, Grizzell has found a perfect approach to conjuring the bewildering technical end of her character to the stage without sacrificing the character’s deeply beautiful sense of humanity and vulnerability. Grizzell is deeply charming as a character who brings everyone together on a practical level.
Dennis Lewis as The Engineer--Recognizable as the only guy in the cast. Lewis is a strong, steady support to the rest of the cast as the Engineer. He’s an impressively poised figure suffering from the deep fatigue which comes from working on a project as huge as the massive, bulbous flying machine on which the entire community seems to be centered. Lewis brings a steady energy to the heart of the ensemble.
Deborah Oettinger as The Collector--Recognizable by the bird of her hand. The others refer to her as “Magpie” as she has a large collection of mismatched artifacts. Her presence seems to strike everyone else as something of a distraction. Oettinger has constructed a very complicated interior psychology for the character that seems to orbit the central dynamic of the rest of the group--thereby adding an external force to prod the rest of the group in various directions.
Kellie Wambold is The Scientist--Recognizable by her goggles. If I heard correctly, everyone else refers to her as “Bing.” As evidenced by previous appearances in other productions, Wambold has the capacity for overwhelmingly playful energy onstage. Here that’s tempered against the darkness of some sort of trauma that she’s suffering from. The mix of playfulness and vulnerability adds considerable depth to the cast.
Cooperative Performance’s Machina Persona runs through Apr. 20 at the North Milwaukee Arthaus on 5151 N. 35th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online. My concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Exrpess.