The Ego Machine

By Philip Pearce DSC09516

PATRICK GOLDEN and Beverly Van Pelt, a married couple who have added energy and enthusiasm to a number of Paper Wing Theatre productions, have just been named artistic directors of the company’s 39-seat Fremont Street venue.

They have marked the move by staging their joint-adaptation of a 1950s era short story by Henry Kuttner called The Ego Machine. It’s set in one of those mythical hyper-goofy movie studios straight out of 20th century chestnuts like Once in a Lifetime and Boy Meets Girl. But the plot centers around the machinations of a 21st century style robot named ENIAC Gamma the 93rd (Shane Dallmann).

ENIAC shows up in the office of a misused and under-appreciated Summit Pictures screenwriter named Nick Martin (Adam Kinkade). Nick is hampered, hamstrung and seemingly sentenced to life in a thankless contract to a sadistic Summit madman/director named Raoul St. Cyr (Mark Daniel Cunningham). Nick can’t break through St. Cyr’s raging temperament, break the contract and take a more appealing offer from another big-time movie producer, Tolliver Watt (the generally benign and rational Rob Crawford).

Convinced at first that his space-suited visitor is an extra who has wandered in off some sci-fi movie set, Nick is eventually convinced that the determined ENIAC wants him to try out a series of time-warp experiments. These will happen as he sticks his head into a space helmet bedizened in flashing red lights and programmed to beef up his battered ego with an infusion of ego-power from some strong-minded characters out of the past. The infusions will scratch ENIAC’s scientific itch and hopefully supply Martin with the cojones to down-face and defeat the odious St. Cyr.

Egged on by the ego of wily Victorian politician Benjamin Disraeli, Nick is just too—well, wily and political to make any real progress. ENIAC moves him on to Ivan the Terrible, but the Russian tyrant’s paranoia gets the better of his ruthlessness and only in the last showdown, in the ego of a mammoth-battling cave man, does he get his contract release with the help of his agent Erika, played cute and perky by Tiffany Torrez.

I’ve never read the original story, but the adaptation works pretty well on the Paper Wing Fremont stage. It’s possible the hefty chunks of back story exposition, much of it handled in Martin’s first act phone conversations with characters we hear but don’t see, could be briefer; for all the info I gleaned, maybe it could even be eliminated. And there’s a puzzling scene in an elevator which didn’t seem to have a lot to do with the central story.

But what interested me about the production was its wide and not always happy variety of performing styles.

From the get-go, it’s a farce. Drama is easier to play than comedy. And comedy is easier to play than farce. Farce is not about people trying to be funny. It is about people seriously acting out their obsessions. We get both approaches in this production.

In Paper Wing’s Ego Machine, hero Nick’s sole aim is to break his contract and win the hand of his pretty agent. By and large, Kinkade gets the point, sticks to achieving that central goal, and, apart from some occasional overdone facial contortions, gives a convincing and funny performance.

As ENIAC, Shane Dallmann is just plain wonderful. He walks oddly not because he is trying to be funny, but because he has seriously studied, reflected and made decisions about how a serious and dedicated robot should move. His marvelous costume helps, of course, but the point is, he never loses focus or tries to be anything but a scientifically obsessed piece of artificial creativity. Result was, my heart lifted every time he entered and he never let me down.

The contrast, I’m afraid, comes with some of the other characters, notably Cunningham in his howling, over-the-top, funny-walking performance as St. Cyr and Kelsey Posey who, as a self-absorbed movie actress, is so busy preening and wheedling and posing and throwing tantrums that she never gets around to asking why she does those things or wondering who this unhappy lady really is.

Funny walks and funny voices wear pretty thin over the course of two hours. The Ego Machine is a puzzling and often maddening blend of focused comic acting and unconvincing shrieks and stumbles and missed opportunities.