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Theater: The Adding Machine
2007-02-14

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The Adding Machine. Pic by Michael Brosilow.

_________

Playwrights: Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt; Composer: Joshua Schmidt

At: Next Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston

Phone: 847-475-1875; $20-$31

Through March 4

BY SCOTT C. MORGAN

'Wow!'

That's what the guy next to me kept on saying throughout Next Theatre Company's world-premiere musical adaptation of The Adding Machine. For all I know he could have been a plant to influence critical opinion, but I found myself constantly echoing his sentiments ( albeit silently ) .

Simply put, Next Theatre's The Adding Machine is a theatrical revelation. The fact that it comes in such a compact and chamber-sized package is also a stunner.

Elmer Rice's 1923 drama of a culpable drone worker crushed by the cogs of capitalism and advancing technology is heralded as a hallmark of American expressionistic drama. It's not a work to move you emotionally, but a thought-provoker that remains as relevant today with the accelerating threat of jobs becoming outmoded or outsourced.

A major drawback of Rice's original is its three-hour running time, prohibitively trying for today's short-attention-span audiences. Thank heavens for Next artistic director Jason Loewith's obsession with The Adding Machine and his desire to downsize it into a manageable 95-minute musical.

To flesh out his vision, Loewith found a marvelous compatriot in composer and co-librettist in Joshua Schmidt. His score straddles the line between opera and musical theater, shifting from jagged atonal outbursts and ramblings to sentimental period love ballads that masterfully reflect the shifting moods, inner thoughts and situations of the characters. His orchestral economy is also noteworthy, since there are just three musicians ( including musical director Jeremy Ramey ) responsible for producing the expansive-sounding score.

This incisive reduction of Rice's original play paired with Schmidt's eclectic score actually proves the case of when less truly is more. The same can be said of the stark cinematic staging of director David Cromer and lighting designer Keith Parham. Their created shadowy film noir world is articulated by the moody lighting that pierces through the play's emotionally involving bleakness.

The Adding Machine is also stuffed with startling images and set pieces by designer Matthew J. York, ranging from the overhead bed shot that opens with Mr. Zero's nattering wife to a moldering wall that claustrophobically encloses the characters. Kristine Knanishu's color-sapped costumes are also spot on to the period.

The entire ensemble puts the final touches on bringing The Adding Machine to life, with plenty of remarkable work from Joel Hatch as the dull-headed everyman Mr. Zero, Cyrilla Baer as his wife and Amy Warren as his unrequited love interest in life Miss Devore. There are times when they sound a bit strained with Schmidt's rangy score, but they all act the hell out of the material.

The Adding Machine is definitely one of those homegrown Chicago-area shows that will make you proud to boast, 'I saw it here first.' See it to secure your boasting rights now before future productions of The Adding Machine start replicating 'Wows!' all over.


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