If Terminator Salvation's bleak vision of humanity's enslavement by machines has you down, HERE Arts Center is the place to go for an antidote to Hollywood blockbuster dystopia. The machines that fill the stage in machines machines machines machines machines machines machines (which we'll henceforth refer to as "machines") are as inextricably involved in day-to-day life as the computer you're using to read this, but they're not about to become "self-aware" any time soon. They're not making existence any easier either, but that's what makes "machines" so damn entertaining: A man pouring a glass of orange juice doesn't make for compelling theater, but three men using an elaborate system of pulleys and counterweights to (somewhat successfully) pour juice makes for daffy, steampunk slapstick.
There isn't much in the way of conventional narrative in "machines," brought to New York by the same Philadelphia company that struck gold with all wear bowlers, but there are plenty of little victories and defeats, and loads of giant laughs. The action revolves around three mysterious men holed away in a bunker packed with Rube Goldberg-style machines (think "Mousetrap"). As they brace for an attack from a vague, unspecified enemy, the trio passes the time absurdly complicating their menial tasks with an army of elaborately pointless technology. "Machines" is one part existential farce—Waiting for Godot for the Al Qaeda era—and two parts giddy parody of our compulsive need to mediate all interactions with technology, to always have a gadget buffering us from the world.
The production design is an astonishing feat of engineering that doesn't always work perfectly, which is wholly intentional and a great part of the fun. And the three-man ensemble (Quinn Bauriedel, Geoff Sobelle, Trey Lyford) complements each other marvelously, with each actor bringing a unique, eccentric characterization to the table. Bauriedel is the thick-headed, Dubya-esque "Chief Commander"; Sobelle the Quixotic, high brow intellectual; and Lyford the withdrawn gearhead who only speaks through the static of a pilot's cockpit mic. Together they present a united front of tech-obsessed clowning, which is to say a funhouse mirror reflecting our own clownish technophilia.