Probably the most notorious hoax of the automaton-obsessed Age of Enlightenment, “The Turk” was a dark-skinned mannequin attached to a boxed apparatus that supposedly enabled it to play chess. It had a killer game, beating famous people like Napoleon and puzzling great minds for over 50 years before someone discovered the box hid a human operator. The Mechanical, staged at Theater for the New City, fuses that saga of scandal with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a slightly outlandish synergy that sparks discursions into questions of free will and the nature of life.
Bond Street Theatre brings to the project a period-appropriate commedia dell’arte style, utilizing masks, marionettes, clowning, and shadow puppetry. Luckily, the players have serious talent for mime and illusion, which results in some stunning set pieces, particularly one involving a frisky detached arm in the laboratory of Victor Frankenstein (Brian Foley). Unfortunately the ensemble also tries to do way too many non-mime-related things simultaneously: elegize a lost era of the theater, deliver lessons on the dangers of Orientalism, and meditate on the role of an author. Meanwhile, they pander continuously to their audience, whom the company don’t really trust to follow their high-minded conceit. Heavy-handed lectures and weak self-referential jokes clog an already overstuffed script.
None of this is helped by character acting that isn’t quite convincing enough to sustain the historically based narrative, which jostles incongruously with the commedia. It’s OK when the clowns use goofy French and Austrian accents for the crowned heads of Europe, but it’s a problem when actors in the “realistic” scenes don’t parlez much better. A hammy performance by Meghan Frank as the young Mary Shelley, who’s trying to track down her monster (Joshua Wynter) in order to finish her novel, helps ensure that the play’s emotional centerpiece comes off as a trite meta-fictional gimmick.
Bottom line: For Fellini-esque circus art, see this company right away. For the kind of dramatic hybrid they try to pull off here, maybe wait yet a few years more for them to hone their act.