Review: Deus Ex Machina by Liz Fisher
by David Glen Robinson
Whirligig Productions and playwright Liz Fisher seem to have turned a corner in theatre with their production of Deus ex Machina, now enjoying its spectacular premiere run at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center. The production is a new play by Fisher, her compound of the three plays in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, about the House of Atreus after the Trojan War. Her work also incorporates some of Sophocles’ and Euripides’ follow-on works (fan fiction?) on the same trilogy, both entitled Electra.
What sets Fisher’s work apart from all other productions or offshoot plays about these classical Greek tragedies is the production’s strong embrace of digital technology. Using several packages of software, the cell network, and the internet, the technology producers, headed by Benjamin Bradley, have managed to integrate the media fields of the play in real time during each performance. This means that audience members can send texts from their cell phones to the producers to convey choices offered them during the performance. The characters on stage then act out the decisions of the “gods” accordingly. And this opens new territories for theatre and the collaboration between performers and audiences. This collaboration is the vital heart of Deus ex Machina ('God out of the machine' in translation). As Fisher writes in her director’s notes: “From its inception, the story was crafted around the idea of empowering the audience to choose….So it seems natural to return to agency as an answer to weighty questions. This play cannot exist without you. Without your voice, the play stops.”
For the technologically challenged among us, there are no worries. Zeus himself instructs the audience on how to play oracular god and convey our texted wishes. Just watch the media screens for cues. With his manly girth and manlier beard, Lowell Bartholomee had Zeus the king of the gods on cruise control; he set a wry if not cynical comedic tone that ran through the play.
Lowell Bartholomee (photo: Katherine M. Lott)
In the actual event, after Zeus trumpeted his instructions to us and withdrew, the performance became audience collaboration more than audience participation, an important distinction from then on. Audience members felt clearly that they were forming, to an extent, the performance going on before them. With this promoted atmosphere of celebratory sharing, the show took on a bread and circuses tone, gradually darkening as the unavoidable tragedy unfolded.
The Rollins was innovatively configured as a thrust, the house flanking it left and right, with house center holding tables reserved for premium ticket buyers. Upstage center stood the double high doors of the House of Atreus, flanked by fluted columns rising into darkness, painted black to warn us of the evil and sorrow within. Entrances and exits were in all directions. Justin J. Smith received the credit for “Scenic.”
(photo: Diana M. Lott)
In such a multimedia production, not all the worthy forms of performance and design can be mentioned in a brief review. The one that requires mention is movement/choreography, credited to Kelly Hasandras and Robin Grace Thompson. Dance was woven throughout the show and given its due. And the standout dance was by the temple priests and priestesses, on the floor and forming a circle around any character consulting the oracle. Thus it was repeated several times, with intensity and fiery sweeps of legs and arms and twisting trunks. The audience, locked in their cell phones, could scarcely watch it, fraught with fateful decisionmaking. The oracle dance was the same each time, but conveyed the outer excitement of the setting and the inner turmoil of the diverse characters tossed willingly within its circle of clairvoyant fire. This was brilliant choreography, flawlessly danced.
The advanced technology did not leave behind the basics of drama, but melded with them, most particularly with the large and mostly exceptional cast. They were an intense, forward-leaning group, clearly comfortable with everything from ensemble dancing and singing to intense monologues and dialogues confronting the extremes of human existence. Catherine Catmull led the group as Clytemnestra. Catmull was clear and intense as always, costumed as a kind of cyber war-queen (think of the Celtic Boudicca). She was fully justified in murdering any errant husband (Agamemnon, played heroically by Matt Radford), that is, if Hera doesn’t desert her.
Katherine Catmull (photo: Diana M. Lott)
Only an Electra as powerful in her portrayal as the incomparable Cami Alys could make her denounce Clytemnestra for her crimes. In the confrontation between Clytemnestra and Electra, perhaps the singular emotional peak of the production, many audience members found themselves hoping that both characters could win and go off and be happy. Alas, it is Greek tragedy for a reason, and don’t take your eyes off the knife.
Cami Alys (photo: Diana M. Lott)
The entire cast served from time to time in the chorus of old men and women of Argos. Perhaps in philosophical whimsy, or not, all the chorus members were marked with conditions of human frailty—lame, blind, mental slowness, sheer old age. They stood or leaned in striking contrast with the royals and the gods, yet offered trenchant, pithy, and hilarious commentary in their chorus work. The gods, by comparison, offered oracular gaseousness and metaphoric mishmash. Hildreth England, who also played the high priestess, has delicate features, but played a bent and withered crone in the chorus to perfection. Justin Scalise was similarly multiply cast, but showed chameleonic talent throughout, and always, always, with full use of the most cultivated and vibrant speaking voice in Austin theatre.
Judd Farris (photo: Diana M. Lott)
Judd Farris as Aegisthus, priest, and chorus old man is just entering his full power as an actor, and he is not to be missed in any role. His physical power is immense but seemingly held lightly. He could throw across his shoulders any number of queens and priestesses and run off with them. But within his power there is a sense of restraint. His Aegisthus is a psychopathic serial killer, but in the fire burning behind his eyes there is a tongue of ice. This icy background made his violence the more horrifying. When the time came, he flew onto the stage like the very wings of fate and determined several outcomes as we oracular audience gods could not. Farris performed all of Aegisthus’ tasks without taking it over the top, very well done. Fight choreography was credited to Joseph Garlock, who eschews elegance for nastiness. The violence in Deus ex Machina achieved the frisson of terror in ways reminiscent of Garlock’s work in Theatre en Bloc’s Bethany, staged at the Rollins a while back.
In any large cast there are a few examples of miscasting, and these are more pronounced when the production is marked by many very strong performances. The few insufficiencies in Deus ex Machina detracted little from the overall sharpness and creative freshness of the show. The ensemble work in particular, incorporating exquisite dance and spectacular costuming, is very likely to receive award nominations.
Whirligig Productions, Deus ex Machina, and their production collaborators Fusebox Festival and Shrewd Productions may help theatre turn a corner into a brighter future with ever more seamless integrations with the digital universe. A similar innovative work was last year’s Fusebox-sponsored all-text Computer Simulation of the Ocean by Steve Moore and Physical Plant Theatre. Assisting Deus ex Machina’s step forward is the ironic symmetry of its being built on the oldest dramatic form, Greek tragedy. Deus ex Machina proves to us without demur how the future of the theatre can be created and save us from endless canonical rehashing.
Deus ex Machina is not for everyone. Plenty of extremely foul language is in the play to update linguistics and give impact to dialogues (it’s really not necessary). Children under about the age of fourteen would be embarrassed if they thought their parents knew they knew what those abusive phrases meant.
701 West Riverside Drive
Austin, TX, 78704
January 3 - 18, 2015
Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m.
Pay what you can Preview on January 2; Industry night Monday January 12