Review: Theatre of Western Springs’ Ghosts in the Machine

Stage Manager: Jon Mills
Location: The Theatre of Western Springs
Director: Rick Snyder

This was a very last minute decision to see this production and really it was because one of my friend wanted to see his friend (whom I am also familiar with) in it and I was curious enough with what little of the premise I was able to construe to want to see what it was about.

So first the quickie:
Acting: love
Staging: love
Set Design: love

Fairly simple, no? According to The Theatre of Western Springs website…

The story begins with a common situation – that of a missing fifty dollar bill – and spins it into intriguing questions of probability, chance and the complexities of musical composition. A man programs a computer to compose music at random, but in the middle of all the binary coin-tossing the computer gives him much more than he asked for. A concurrent mystery surrounds several people who find themselves suspecting and distrusting each other over the issue of a lost or possibly stolen fifty dollar bill. Originally produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Ghost in the Machine is an entertaining and brisk mix of sex, mystery and metaphysics.

So below is the cast list and beyond the break my thoughts:

Wes Westlund Mike Janke
Nancy Westlund Laura Leonardo Ownby
Matt Carroll David M. Rodriguez
Kim Goldfarb Sharon Kushiner
Ali Schumann Noor Hamdi
Llewelyn Harper James Murphy

Wow… really just wow…

Just to get this out of the way, David Rodriguez did a more than brilliant job of sprouting a lot of technical terminology related to mathematics, probability, programming, musicology… etc… that I (as in me personally who has honestly dabbled in mathematics, statistics/probability, programming, and music theory throughout her life) not only understood well… but very nearly believed that he understood what he was saying himself.

I mean seriously… my nerd-gasm meter was shooting into the sky and soaking it all in… granted I really want to read the script to be sure because there were some aspects that I would much rather re-read and make sure that it is truly sound, but to just enjoy in the glory of it all.

And if you think I am just drooling over the mathematical and programming techno-babble… you’re not only far from the truth, but that is what made David so intriguing to watch: his initial enthusiasm and delivery was so believable that it made me want to understand it myself as well.

His romantic counterpart (played by Sharon Kushiner) on the other hand was very robotic and almost cold in her delivery throughout the production, which at first would appear to be off putting until more and more shades of her character starts to reveal themselves to the audience. The character’s occupation of game theory, the idea of programming the computer to play against the computer and creating a meta-gaming universe.

If you have worked with engineers and have dealt with programmers like I have… her portrayal is actually not all that far from fact. And I mean straight programmers… not the modelers and animators like for Weta Digital or Pixar (they have too much fun over there sometimes… I am almost jealous… almost) are fairly devoid of personality in their speech and approach for the most part except in certain arenas, hell being an engineer myself I have a habit of being monotonous as well. The fact that Sharon emulated this not just well, but so believable was funny to me if only because it took me a bit to realize that this was part of her personality and character, once that came to mind it was a lot easier to enjoy her performance.

The married couple of Wes and Nancy Westlund (portrayed by Mike Janke and Laura Leonardo Ownby respectively) provide the perfect counterpoint in this quartet of players. With their balanced and seemingly secure marriage being tossed about like a rag doll and cracks slowly beginning to show… they provide enough balance to make the marriage not only believable, but livable.

However… between the two what took the cake were their constant philosophical discussions that if you were not paying attention could easily confused you, to watch them spar with the ins and outs and what ifs was funny, entertaining and impressive.

As my friend mentioned this was a show where the first half catered to my mathematical / nerdical (yes I made that up) mindset, while the second half tended to cater to his more philosophical mind.

The direction of Rick Snyder was spot on and effective. When it was revealed to me that not only did the original script call for a Vietnamese character but an additional set piece… Rick very intelligently used what was available to him and adjusted certain aspects of the production to work with what he had on hand.

Most notably was the decision to use a Middle-Eastern characterization / spin to what was (now much more understandably) originally written to be a Vietnamese character… although his monologue made some sense and was relatively believable to the passing audience member (and glancing in the audience the majority are indeed Caucasian) to those not of the Caucasian persuasion there were a few discrepancies.

However, Rick did make a very smart choice in choosing what he had done and using it to his advantage. It worked, and worked well enough to drive particular story points home. Not only that, but the decision of some of the characterizations and the set provided an atmosphere that was not only engaging but also much more revealing than that of a standard stage.

All in all, this was a very well done production and one that I am very pleased to have been able to have the chance to see. In other words another ball out of the park.

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