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Recent awkward monsters 

Blue Monday's reboot clears the decks

Presumably by now the jack-o'-lantern's gone to compost; the straw poll of the candy bowl has offered up its yearly demographic wisdom on the sweeting habits of migratory youth. The improvised porch decorations? Disposed of, or redispatched to haunt the basement or the attic for the next 11 months.

All of which leaves, of course, the monsters.

It was different one short week ago: appreciated scares, in an approved-of season. Deliberately gross exaggerations of certain elements of what we're normally like, from central casting: object lessons, one and all, in Just How Far Things Can Go.

Now they look positively abashed, like guilty guests allowed to stay too long. They're played out. It's time they--and all the others--went.

So they avert their eyes, blushing furiously as they shuffle past, to Unemployment, or the other fates. A failed Supreme Court nominee. A fallen soldier. A lapsed belief. An older flame.

And we almost do not hear them as each mumbles the same question:

Was this it? Was this really all that you could make of me?

A similar "meditation on modern life" is encrypted in Ctrl-Alt-Delete , the thought-provoking world premiere by Rus Hames and Joe Brack and the first regional work by Blue Monday Productions. Nearly all of the things we'd hoped for from our interview last week--along with a few of the things we feared--found their way to the stage of the Common Ground Theatre on opening night last Friday.

As a result, our recommendation's clear. Blue Monday has interrupted our regional programming, with one of the most exciting--and successful--theatrical experiments we've seen on stage in recent years. Long-time theater-goers in particular should take note: If you ever wondered what Somnambulist Project, that fabled, fractious colony of Michigan theater ex-pats from the early 1990s, might have done with a bit more discipline, better writing and intellectual underpinnings further explored, this likely is the answer.

In this jagged critique on the inevitable alienation of mediated relationships, Strange Man (Anthony Hughes) apparently doesn't just hold the power of life and death over a group of life-sized "bio-anamorphic mechanicals"--human-like androids who populate his tech-bench domicile. They fear him because he also has the predilection to "debug" them on the fly; painfully tweaking, changing, adding or removing functions on a whim.

But the unsmiling god of this two-room apartment quails each time there's a knock at the door. Similar episodes disclose a misanthrope with severe intimacy problems--and a thinly veiled sexual pathology or three to boot. Having created these eerie simulacra in his own image (or chips and fragments thereof), he's passed the dubious benefits of those malfunctions along to them as well.

Having sealed himself and his little colony off from the world--except, of course, for the Internet--it's no coincidence that their various members seem preoccupied, in the immortal words of Barry Manilow, with trying to get the feeling again.

An Ozzie and Harriet pair named He and She repeatedly trade lines of programming code--domestic dialogue to you and me--as they attempt to arrive at increasingly convincing simulations of human emotion. After one says "I love you" and the other rejoins "I love you too," the first one says excitedly, "I think you meant it that time!"

Before that, a new female android, optimistically named Dream Woman, tells a half-nude Joe, the apparent everyman of this digital archipelago, "Don't be afraid. I can really feel!"

Not that the flesh-and-blood contingent has any advantage in this department. In another sequence, Strange Man attempts a casual--but simulated--conversation with Dream Woman, showing her around his pad. His attempt at intimate patter seems scripted half by Hugh Hefner and half by David Lynch. Funny how things don't turn out OK.

Throughout all there is an element of the inventor as serial killer to Strange Man. The male and female simulacra on stage both know if they do not please him, they can be "improved"--or disassembled. While the double-binds in which he places his characters don't nearly suggest the work of a jigsaw, they do disclose a "creator" possibly trying to cure his own dysfunctions through sexual simulations by surrogates and voyeurism. Since these efforts only further isolate him, Strange Man's prospects are uncertain at best.

Hames and Brack arrange broken fragments of their own scripts, the writings of Richard Foreman, and added material from Hughes and dramaturg Stella Duffy into a truly crazy quilt, a treacherous psychological landscape where creations very timidly explore their own empowerment.

The stitching in these textual arrangements holds--for the most part. Two or three moments in the evening do seem "writerly," but in the worst possible way: wordy, pretentious, showy exercises in intellectual gladhanding at the expense of character, scene and plot. It's nothing Stoppard hasn't done, in short, but it's still not effective and not to be encouraged, particularly when so much here is better.

I'd also lodge a similar caution against a late-night dorm-room bull session scene suggesting a collaboration between John Giorno and Quentin Tarantino, a rare descent into "genre" dialogue or situation without apparently expanding or questioning the boundaries of same. Another caution against select, repeated script reversals that seem more like textbook theater games than organic--or artificial--elements of plot seems advisable.

Joe Brack combines the physical energy of an early Iggy Pop with an innocent mischief as the character Joe. Daryl Stephenson's Monologue Man comes off as the closest thing Joe has to a mentor in this world. Thaddeus Edwards and Betzi Hekman are uncanny as that shallow but happy couple He and She, while Merrybelle Park takes us through one particular hell as a Dream Woman that a misogynist has created and is still trying to "get the bugs out of."

Confirm another impression from our interview: Those seeking Thornton Wilder, look elsewhere. Hames and Brack combine the sexual paranoia (and pathology) of Burroughs with vintage, Vonneguttural technological discontent.

This imperfect work has sharp edges aplenty, on which questions about humanity's relationships with God, the planet and the things we've created are all called into question.

Wrinkles and all, Ctrl-Alt-Delete is one of the most challenging and most worthwhile works of the season thus far. Strongly recommended, particularly to those seeking something new.

***The Turn of the Screw , Triad Stage--For reasons never disclosed, this schismatic production places Henry James' insidious 19th-century tale of corruption visited upon the very young on Takeshi Kata's industrial set of scaffolding, plastic vertical dividers and gridded gray and sickly yellow overhead lights above an unadorned cement floor. These largely empty choices reinforce the thinness of a production concept in which Mark Boyette and Melodie Sisk, two talented actors who seem perpetually restrained by invisible hands, are required to inhabit seven roles during the evening.

Director Preston Lane digs deep into the work's psychology, leaving us with the right constellation of questions at the end. Have we witnessed an exorcism or manslaughter? Where exactly is that undercurrent of evil always running beneath events? But in the end a text treated just a bit too sacredly comes off too stiff instead, in a production whose literary high-mindedness prevents it from stooping to actually scare the bejeebers out of the audience--as the original work did, by all accounts, in 1898. (Through Nov. 6.)

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