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A world apart; Probing drama 'Machine Stops' tackles big issues

Attending a play at Buffalo Laboratory Theatre is always a rewarding experience.

The inventive Hamburg acting company, Taylor Doherty at the helm, seldom strays from edgy themes and attracts top talent to bring them to life; the BLT cast list, past and present, is an all-star ensemble.

Technically, the troupe has few equals. Its home, the Swan Auditorium on Hamburg's Hilbert College campus, is wide, deep and sleek.

And, on a given night, playgoers take home ample food for thought. Recently, I saw a reprised and rewritten production of an original work by the scholarly Doherty, "Machine Stops."

The story was imaginative and scary in equal measure, and post-play discussion ranged from random words by the Indian musician and mystic, Rabindranath Tagore, to a thoughtful idea of John Lennon's to the famous, self-analytical quote by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist and co-sire of the atomic bomb: "Now, I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Not a bad night's work for me.

Mary (Katie White) is seriously ill, pain-ridden, bed-bound and bent, unable to walk or see. The fabled Johns Hopkins Hospital has done all it can for her. But, her lover, Dr. Pallenberg (Ray Boucher), designs a computer program to send Mary into peaceful doze until medicine catches up. Mary is comatose. Mary is free.

"Some say that gleams of a remoter world visit the soul in sleep," wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary soon learns this, landing in the medieval country of Narenthia -- wizards, warlocks, dungeons, dragons -- suddenly Princess Miranda, leader of the people, beloved and brave, fulfilled now, standing straight, walking tall.

Her circle includes people who look remarkably like others she has known: her sister, the custodian back in Baltimore. She is happy, decisive, a difference-maker. A virtual life indeed.

"Machine Stops" heats up. The good doctor and his aide, the nerdy, Rick Moranis-lookalike Dave (Chris LaBanca), implant themselves with a computer chip to check on Mary/Miranda's brain wave activity and are soon involved in the comings and goings of Narenthia. Pallenberg is dismayed that he is no longer loved or even liked -- the now Miranda has interest in the statuesque girl warrior, Christophe (Marie Costa).

Time to end this experiment, says the doctor, who alone seems to know that all of this is fantasy. Dave has bought into the dream, spurred on by the sweet pub wench, Kyra (Lisa Dee). The experiment, with one click, could end any moment. "I can give you your life back!" screams Pallenberg. "I don't want it!" Miranda, equally adamant, shouts back.

It's an interesting dilemma and how this intriguing "Machine Stops" ends will not be disclosed here. Playwright Doherty seems to have a dim view of our technology addictions and where they might eventually take us. "Don't you realize what a miracle you've created?" pleads Dave to the doctor, who visualizes a society that "plugs in and drops out," with money not the only cost.

And the destroyer of worlds thing? There's a veiled reference to scientist Oppenheimer early on in this story when Mary's condition is discussed. Crafty. This play, seemingly a fairy tale at first, integrates some heavy-duty Doherty themes: evil, menace, what's real and what isn't, greater good, sickness and loss.

The leads, particularly the disheveled Boucher -- who, spurned in love, still worries about ills and cures for patients everywhere -- and the initially befuddled but ultimately voice of reason LaBanca, are stellar.

The women in the cast -- the precise White, Costa, Dee, the hyperactive Kay Kerimian as soldier Ferret, Anne Kurtis -- are finely drawn. Larry Smith and John Aramini complete the ensemble, which has been sagely assembled and tells the tale well even through some comic relief moments that take a bit long to unfold.

Playwright Doherty is also director Doherty here, with help from Kathleen Golde; the play is a replacement for a work by Tom Stoppard.

BLT worried about rewrite, time constraints and cast adjustments. No problem. "Machine Stops" turned out superbly.

***

"Machine Stops"    

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through April 28    

WHERE: Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, William E. Swan Auditorium, Hilbert College, 5200 South Park Ave., Hamburg    

INFO: 202-9033