February 8, 2019

by Ellie Newman

Ayn Rand and Donald Trump walk into a fast-food restaurant with Noam Chomsky and a confrontation not far behind. Rand and Trump are on the run, and it is up to Chomsky and his student, Millie, to catch them. So begins a climactic scene from Pedro Reyes’s puppet production Manufacturing Mischief, which ran at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts from January 18–20 as a part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.

Reyes’s comedic play places both historical and contemporary figures in conversation with one another, addressing the darker side of techno-enthusiasm. According to Reyes, the play originally started out as a “primer or Sesame Street for political thought.” In addition to Rand, Trump, and Chomsky, puppet versions of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Karl Marx make appearances.

“What I wanted to stage is hypothetical encounters between authors that have been key for the history of political and economic trends from the last two hundred years,” Reyes explains. “Even though they never met in real life, what I find very interesting is that through this device you can put those two or three voices in conversation.”

He began developing Manufacturing Mischief while teaching at MIT, which he describes as a place where “everyone is thinking [about] how to put a robot where a person is.”

“Very little thought is going towards the destruction of labor, the social costs of automation,” he says. The play became a response to techno-enthusiasm and an exploration of its origins. “I wanted to trace where that ideology comes from, [that] automation is never to say ‘we want workers to work less and then have more free time.’ It’s always about laying off people so you maximize profits. The techno-hero such as Henry Ford in the 1930s was, for instance, replaced in the 1990s with the figure of Steve Jobs, and then currently the equivalent is Elon Musk.”

Reyes notes that including technology as part of the answer often creates an even more dangerous problem. The play centers on one such “dangerous problem” that quite literally emerges from a piece of technology created by of a well-meaning MIT student. The device, called the “Print-A-Friend,” accepts books as inputs and outputs their authors, alive and very capable of conducting their own mischief. Throughout the play, the device produces characters such as Rand, Trump, and Marx, who each have their own plans for the new technology.

Reyes selected one of MIT’s best-known professors, Chomsky, as the play’s protagonist.

“I’m interested in [Chomsky] for several reasons,” Reyes explains. “He’s one of those kinds of intellectuals who has written about every possible subject…he’s always very up to date with political events, of what is happening. He’s not a philosopher in his ivory tower.”

On the stage, Chomsky’s character engages with ideas but also with very tangible issues, many of which are embodied by the other characters themselves. According to Reyes, what is funny about Chomsky’s character in the play is that he’s always very calm, and in the mayhem of the other characters, that contrast is humorous.

Big ideas and jokes are certainly not mutually exclusive in Manufacturing Mischief. Despite its focus on the serious and influential, the play uses comedy as a vehicle for these ideas.

Reyes’ theory about humor is that if a joke is dissected, there is always a set-up and a punchline: the set-up is the thesis and the punchline is the antithesis.

“There’s often a disappointment factor in jokes, where there’s a course of action and then there’s a drop, and the drop is so dramatic that you handle the shock with laughter,” Reyes says. “Laughter is a defense mechanism that cushions the collision between your expectations of reality and the shock of reality. But if you laugh, it means that you understand both the thesis and antithesis. You are confronted with the truth, and it’s so uncomfortable that you have to laugh. That is why it’s such an efficient mechanism.”

Through the vehicle of comedy, Manufacturing Mischief manages to convey a lot of meaning to its audience, sending a sociopolitical message with just a few puppets and a little humor.