Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 18 June 2018

Review: Manufacturing Mischief at The Tank

The Tank ⋄ 5th to 24th June 2018

Puppets drive a Chomsky-esque investigation into current technological advances. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck

Karl Marx, Tiny Trump, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk and Ayn Rand in Manufacturing Mischief. Photo: Sham Sthankiya

Manufacturing Consent, first a book by linguist/philosopher/activist/cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky and finance professor Edward Herman, then a documentary about Chomsky, focuses on the way corporate, profit-driven media institutions further the interest of society’s elites. In Manufacturing Mischief, Mexican artist/activist/educator Pedro Reyes uses puppets to kick Chomsky-esque investigation into current technological advances, particularly artificial intelligence and the automation of daily life in our late-capitalist era. With characters including Chomsky, Apple founder Steve Jobs (post-death, living in the cloud), technology magnate/evangelist/entrepreneur Elon Musk, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Tiny Donald Trump (President Trump, but somehow smaller than all the other puppet characters), a hapless Wendy’s cashier, Frida Kahlo, and a brilliant young scientist who was Chomsky’s acolyte, Manufacturing Mischief casts a sardonic, skeptical, and often scathing eye on our current political and technological moment. It crams an extraordinary amount of commentary into a brief show–sometimes it whizzes by too fast to catch–but when it works, it’s bracing, thought-provoking, and sometimes hilarious. (How can you not laugh at a puppet tango between Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand?)  When it works less well, it’s heavy-handed, even a little clunky, and I’m not sure its message entirely coheres–but as the show reminds us, we live in terrifying times and there’s lots and lots of issues to address.

Jobs acts as narrator and exposition-fairy, filling in background on the real-people characters for the audience, and keeping the tale moving. The piece is set at a competition for new artificial-intelligence devices; Chomsky has been invited as a judge under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He arrives to discover Elon Musk presiding over the event, and also learns that one of his own protegés, Millie (one of the few wholly fictional characters), has entered a device into the competition: the Print-a-Friend, a device that looks like a mashup of an industrial photocopier and a toilet, and which will (re)animate the author of any book inserted into it, thus allowing people to get guidance and dialogue from, say, their favorite philosophers of yore.

Unfortunately, the first book dropped into the Print-a-Friend’s maw is none other than Atlas Shrugged, thus bringing the famously combative, dogmatically uber-capitalist Ayn Rand onto the stage, to face some who lionize her (Musk, Jobs) and some who loathe her (Chomsky). When Tiny Donald Trump and Karl Marx are also extruded, the ensuing plot is one third caper (everyone wants to abscond with the machine), one third techno-thriller (there are robots among us), and one third absurdist black comedy (the aforementioned tango, not to mention most of the utterances out of Trump’s mouth, Karl Marx rapping, and a lot of stories about cats. Apparently Karl Marx was quite a cat fancier. Who knew?).

Pedro Reyes’s puppet construction makes the real figures delightfully recognizable (though Chomsky does look a wee bit like Woody Allen) with signature traits treated with just the faintest hint of caricature: Jobs’s black turtleneck, Musk’s square head, Rand’s strong features and blocky build, Kahlo’s famous eyebrows. And there are some genuinely cool puppet “special effects.” Millie–both character and puppet–is a bit of a weak link, though, in both puppet design and in David Hufker’s script; she’s described as a sort of feminist warrior, but she gets a little lost against the broadly drawn historical figures, as well as being more plot device than character. Even the hapless Wendy’s clerk seems to have more of a personality. Other visual elements are almost entirely done through David Pym’s video projections.

Manufacturing Mischief throws a lot of things at the wall–jokes, ideas, polemics, musical numbers–to see what sticks. It raises some important ideas, though doesn’t fully explore any of them–but in the end, it leaves us with a simple message for anyone interested in any of the political issues it raises: vote in the midterm elections. It’s hard to argue with that.

Manufacturing Mischief runs to June 24, 2018. More production info can be found here.


Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, nytheatre.com, and NYTheater now, and currently writes for The Brooklyn Paper and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Manufacturing Mischief at The Tank Show Info


Directed by Meghan Finn

Written by Paul Hufker

Cast includes Victor Ayala, Mery Cheung, Julia Darden, Christine Schisano, Christina Stone

Running Time 1 hour


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