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Freefall's adaptation of 'The Machine Stops,' a story from 1909, just might foretell the future

Rob Glauz plays Kuno and Ann Morrison plays his mother Vashti in Eric Davis' adaptation of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops, running May 5-27, 2018, at Freefall Theatre. Thee Photo Ninja.
Rob Glauz plays Kuno and Ann Morrison plays his mother Vashti in Eric Davis' adaptation of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops, running May 5-27, 2018, at Freefall Theatre. Thee Photo Ninja.
Published May 9, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG

Imagine a world in which people live underground because the air is too polluted to breathe; humans communicate through a vast "Machine" that connects anyone in the world through undersea cables but exacts a price in lost intimacy.

Of course, this could never happen. That's why they call it science fiction. E.M. Forster wrote The Machine Stops in 1909, anticipating the trade-offs we make for convenience. Now Freefall Theatre has staged an adaptation by Eric Davis, its artistic director, tweaking the novella only slightly to sharpen its focus for 2018 audiences. Davis also directs the show.

The hexagonal console is dominated by a flat screen, and the video chat a woman holds with her son looks pretty much like Skype. Vashti, part of a lecturer class of future citizens, is due to speak to thousands soon about the history of Australian music but can block out a brief chat with her adult son, Kuno. The mood, from the tranquil blue and white to the state-of-the-art sound system and soft music, suggests comfort. It's the kind of world you could imagine living in, even in an underground cubicle that looks exactly like everyone else's cubicle.

Davis introduced his work after the theater dropped an adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm over rights issues. It's dark and didactic, pretty much saying outright that humanity has strayed badly off course. The delicacy lies in how thoroughly these residents of a unified planet (there was a Great Rebellion, followed by a Cultural Unification) have interpreted submission as progress.

Casting shines like a jewel. Ann Morrison inhabits the sharp crevices of Vashti, most strikingly in the all but indifferent posture she adopts toward her son. She says as much without lines as when she speaks. The nuances of her conflicted feelings show up in every slight turn or frown as she listens to her son railing against the subjugated world they live in.

"We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now," he says. "It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act."

Rob Glauz as Kuno makes a powerful case for life as we know it. His approach is at once passionate and fatalistically sad, as if Kuno knows the odds of getting out from under the Machine are impossible. Each actor models half of an insoluble love relationship; perhaps they even model any mother and her adult son or daughter. One wants continued safety and protection for the child she raised, the other to carve out a distinct identity.

Meanwhile, the world she calls civilized stigmatizes casual touch and sacrifices pleasure for the absence of pain, dispensing of chronic illness through euthanasia. The Machine layers in audio and video messages from its most eloquent apologists, including Brian Shea with a hilarious take on why even basic observations filtered through others are more reliable than "direct experience."

This anti-empirical screed runs counter to Kuno's visits outside the underground bubble, where residents are told they can't breathe the toxic air without a respirator. Acrobat Adam Kezele acts out these explorations, climbing a pole or soaring from a sash rigging. Megan Morgan, the aerial choreographer, plays the woman he met. Their above-the-ground dance, without respirators, represents the adaptation's biggest departure from the story and its most beautiful sequence.

Depending on machines, of course, only works when humans are around to maintain them. What happens when machines start evolving and building themselves? If the ending is a bit abrupt, well, so is the novella. The point is not so much about a fairy-tale resolution but to shine a light on where we've been and where we may be headed.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.