University Theatre’s 'Adding Machine' marries past and present

Mark Reaney is marrying the future and the past to make a point about the present. The KU professor of theater is designing the set and lighting for University Theatre’s new production of “Adding Machine: A Musical,” which opens Friday.

The show opened off Broadway in 2008, but it’s an adaptation of the 1923 Elmer Rice expressionist play “The Adding Machine.” University Theatre staged the play in 1995, and Reaney was heavily involved in the design of that production.

“That was our very first experiment into computer graphics,” Reaney says. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

The 1995 production explored virtual reality concepts in what was pretty new technology at the time. But both then and now, one of the themes is making a statement about technology.

“There’s heavy symbolism and irony that we’re making art with modern adding machines,” Reaney says, referring to computers. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s not the machines that are the problem.”

“Adding Machine: A Musical” tells the story of Mr. Zero, an unimaginative accountant, who is replaced after 25 years of thankless service to his company by a machine that can do his job faster and better. Infuriated, he murders his boss, is convicted and executed and goes to Heaven, wherein he continues to choose a dull, meaningless existence.

“You’re not supposed to like Zero,” Reaney says. “He makes bad choices every time.”

For a musical about technology and humanity’s relationship to it, Reaney created a virtual reality environment evocative of the places in the show.

“In the early part of the show everything is flat,” Reaney says. “It’s mostly colorless. Then, when he goes to Heaven, there’s lots of color.”

That’s accomplished by projecting images onto the stage and even onto the actors. “We project numbers onto them at certain points,” he says. “The lion’s share of the front lights are also computer-generated.”

And that’s not all. The images interact with the characters, requiring a lot of programming and timing.

“The show features VR backdrops with real-time changes,” Reaney explains. But he emphasizes it isn’t all pre-programmed and then allowed to run, with the actors being forced to keep up. Because it’s virtual reality technology, it’s meant to be reactive to what’s happening around it.

“What keeps this work exciting is the fact the VR technology is not prerecorded; the computers are working live just like the actors,” Reaney says. “We live in a digital world and modern audiences must be spoken to with what they are most familiar with — innovative technology.”

And that’s the point. Technology is defined not by itself but what we use it for. It can be made to dehumanize, but it can also improve our lives and help us make art. Mr. Zero loses his job and subsequently his life as a result of technology and his reaction to it. But his story is told in an environment that could only be created by advanced machines.

“It’s all experimental,” Reaney says. “It’s real experimental theater with a capital X.”

“Adding Machine: A Musical” opens Friday and runs Nov. 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at Stage Too! in the Crafton-Preyer Theater at Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except the Sunday dates, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the performance on the 17th are only available to University Theatre’s Friends of the Theatre (FROTH) organization. “Adding Machine: A Musical” includes themes of racism and offensive language. It is not appropriate for younger audiences.


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