‘The Life Machine’ is a play about modern monstrosities

FaultLine Theater /Courtesy

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Just before the acting in Faultline Theater’s latest play, “The Life Machine,” dancers performed an abstract modern piece that recreated the processes of a contraption. It was weird — twitchy movements coupled with strobe flashers and blue stage lighting.

“The people who own this place wanted to bring in couches,” said director Cole Ferraiuolo, who co-founded Faultline Theater with fellow UC Berkeley alum Gwen Kingston, a former staff member of The Daily Californian. “But I told them, ‘No. This is not a slouching show.’ ”

Wacky atmosphere was constant throughout the entire play — that and the presence of a giant “Life Machine” onstage. At least 10 feet tall, the contraption had three monitors interlaced with slick black cords, a metallic insulation tube and three cubicle-spaces for the actors to morph into scene-specific spaces. Somewhere between Banksy and Gaga, this was provocatively avant-garde and imposingly so.

“The Life Machine” is punctuated by telegraphic speech and chronicles a woman who begrudgingly supports her mother through work at a Manhattan office. Her boss proposes. It’s clear to all she has no interest in marrying him, but her mother needs the money — and what’s love in the face of wealth, anyway? She marries her boss.

This action, though more a reaction to society than an inherently bold move, solidifies the main character’s loss of self-definition. Technology as a threat originates here, with reality tipped in favor of a speculative future. The woman is a prism through which our power to play with our own sphere manifests, but that sphere claims her. How does one use agency then? Would she kill somebody? Would you take your own life? That happens a lot. It’s scary.

Although she is the central character, the woman does not display any agency of her own for the majority of the piece. The production draws on whether technology liberates us and gives us control of ourselves or takes away our agency, so her submissiveness is apt.

Juxtaposed against tech’s dearth in human connection and overload of stimuli is “The Life Machine” as a live theater production. With technology, as with theater, you are the consumer. The play is surreally topical in a culture that’s salacious for gratification from technology. We lust for machinery, for more fulfillments from the machine. It’s exhausting to navigate the ownership of technology in conjunction with our own identity.

It’s also a stark and humiliating reality that we’re agents of this growing gap in human connection — not unlike filming a concert in lieu of dancing or unlike constructing an idealistic identity through social media. We can comment, and we can judge.

But what happens when we allow this disconnect to infiltrate our lives is we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our actions.

“You could theoretically jump onstage and say, ‘Stop! This is wrong,’ ” Kingston said. “The fact that you don’t means you have to confront something about yourself — what kind of injustice you’re prepared to endure versus what you’re willing to endure to preserve your social standing.”

Choreographer and UC Berkeley senior Sophie Needleman finished the thought. “I think this play does a really good job at sort of using the media that (director) Cole is critiquing.”

The ubiquity — good and bad — of technology reinforces the play as a warning and functions as a practical method of provocation. This is a production about an increasingly digitized world besot with apparatuses, and the double-edge is that our generation is a very difficult audience to captivate. For Kingston, entertainment can be many things: it can be political. It can have an agenda and try to make change. It can be beautiful. It can be ugly. Fundamentally, the job is to captivate you.

That’s the bottom line. You have to be upright and centered.

So we sat in lawn-chairs.

“And guess how they’re made?” Ferraiuolo grinned. “Mass manufacturing.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].