Deus Ex Machina
Deus Ex Machina lets audiences literally play gods and choose what happens to the House of Atreus
Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Jan. 9, 2015
Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Jan. 18
Running time: 2 hr., 40 min.
"Experimental." An adjective with the potential to elicit anxiety in even the most seasoned theatregoer. Yes, new work that toys with uncharted modes of storytelling can be a daunting prospect for those who more often seek tried-and-true classics for consumption. But fear not: Director/playwright Liz Fisher's Deus Ex Machina provides a highly accessible experiment for anyone with the ability to send and receive text messages.
As you enter the lobby, an usher presents you with instructions on how to participate in the performance (it's as simple as sending a text to the provided number). Once one of four priestesses confirms that you're successfully opted into the new system by technologists Benjamin Bradley, Robert Matney, and Tim Thomas, you're on your way into the world of The Oresteia, which we're told in the program notes is "a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus that tell the story of the House of Atreus after the end of the Trojan War." The configuration of the Rollins Theatre feels almost akin to the setup of a fashion show, with a long thrust extending into the middle of the space much like a runway and the audience seated primarily on either side. Two towering doors ominously anchor Justin J. Smith's impressively massive set, with colorful, bold, and intense lighting by Megan Reilly sculpting the scene. The priestesses' garb foretells the other fantastic, vibrant costumes to come from designer Jamie Urban.
You're introduced to the proceedings by Zeus (who else?), played to the hilt of brash riotousness by the very funny Lowell Bartholomee. Zeus is sick of making decisions for the mortals, so you're dubbed a demigod and given the power to vote communally on several points throughout the evening, thus providing audience members with the agency to determine the twists and turns of the narrative at hand. Some questions on which the audience votes seem trivial, while others appear weighty and crucial to how the story will play out. But therein lies the mystique of the situation: Every given performance of Deus Ex Machina will likely be different, as each set of "gods in their machines" makes its own decisions. Perhaps some of those seemingly banal questions aren't so trivial after all ....
If you're an aficionado of Greek history, myths, and stories, you're likely to get wrapped up in the play before you. I made the mistake of not reading the helpful program synopsis explaining The Oresteia ahead of time and thus had a somewhat difficult time following the proceedings despite being fairly familiar with the story of Troy. Be advised also that this play is not a short one, though the pacing of the acting is brisk for the most part.
It's an experiment five years in the making, with 12,288 possible variations on twelve different storylines; this is 21st century technotheatre.