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Saturday, June 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Voice Of The Machine' Has A Few Kinks For Puppeteer To Work Out

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Theater review

"Voice of the Machine" by Warner Blake. Plays Wednesday-Friday, and on Saturdays with "Voice of the Turtledove" and "Voice of the Hollow Man" at the Newmark Center, 1402 Second Ave.; runs through June 29. 325-7901.

Artist-puppeteer Warner Blake wants you to question the congressional funding of the B-1 bomber and other high-tech weapons systems of mass destruction.

But he also entices you to watch a hokey old sci-fi movie on a miniature drive-in screen, listen to an engrossing mock-news account of an Eskimo tribal rite involving a downed airplane encased in ice, and contemplate the mysteries of genetic evolution.

All this transpires in the eccentric performance field-cum-lecture hall Blake is creating (and hosting) at the Newmark Center.

His multimedia piece, "Voice of the Machine," presented by On the Boards and the Center on Contemporary Art (COCA), is the final installment of Blake's years-in-the-making "Soup Talks Trilogy."

Intimate audiences

Each of the 45 patrons at a given performance by Blake sits around an oblong wooden table (or, less desirably, on a horseshoe of bleacher seats) to behold the idiosyncratic sights and sounds he conjures, with the help of puppeteer aides Griffin Mainord and Anna Burdak.

"Voice of the Machine" still has some technical kinks to work out. Blake's soft voice gets lost in the boomy concrete space provided by the Newmark. And even with small pairs of binoculars available to all viewers, the sightlines from some raised seats make it hard to catch some subtle effects.

But like its well-received predecessors, "Voice of the Turtledove" and "Voice of the Hollow Man," Blake's latest phantasmagoric "seance" is a special 3-D canvas that intriguingly juxtaposes several wide-ranging obsessions.

The human penchant for war-making is represented by tiny figurines of Napoleonic generals and their troops, and Blake's acerbic verbal critique of the modern-day weapons industry.

Several boom boxes blare out the Jimi Hendrix rendition of the national anthem, attesting to the cultural power of rock music. And Jackie O'Ryan's authentic-sounding mock-radio report from a "cathedral of ice" in Alaska is a vivid world unto itself.

A violin-playing half-marionette, a video of a nude blind man reading Braille, and a full-throated recital of Walt Whitman's ode "Song of Myself" (read on tape by actor Ted D'Arms) affirm life's sanctity and sensuousness in the face of increasing mechanization. And a quick lesson in post-Darwin evolution theory, with allusions to biologist Stephen Jay Gould, challenges conventional wisdom about the inherent superiority of Homo sapiens.

Enjoyable puppets

Given that the most striking elements in the show are Blake's small-scaled visual tableaus, one wishes for more of them and less verbal didacticism.

But "Voice of the Machine" is more imaginative and original than much of what passes for experimental theater in Seattle. And its abstractions make the most sense if viewed in context with the rest of the "Soup Talks Trilogy."

Helpfully, one can see all three parts of this unusual epic on Saturdays at the Newmark Center. And Blake will bring the whole opus to the prestigious International Festival of Puppet Theatre in New York next fall.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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