Almost 50 years ago, legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury tailored to Charles Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester a tiny chamber tuner only now unveiled as “Ray Bradbury’s Wisdom 2116” at the Fremont Center Theater. Neither a visionary tract nor a neglected masterpiece, this sweet fable about seeking contentment with one’s lot is closer to performance art than traditional dramaturgy. Prodigious use of dance, masks, puppetry, Expressionist stagecraft and John Hoke’s lilting melodies lends heft to the familiar theme and skimpy (45 minutes) running time.
This is one of those Pierrot/Pierrette things in which props and cast alike are brought out of a trunk by a Dr. Coppelius type (David Stoneman), the perpetually leering emcee whose knowing grin presages nothing in particular. This dude hawks marionettes with a thriving robot business on the side, albeit a quaintly retro version of artificial intelligence one can easily believe was conceived in 1957.
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We’re not much beyond “Forbidden Planet” here, but helmer-choreographer Steve Josephson sculpts an attractive troupe of dancers — equally at home with ballet, Fosse sizzle and hip-hop — into Mr. Marionette’s inventory for our central couple’s Christmas shopping pleasure.
It takes nothing away from the likable, topiary-headed Rob Harryman and Lisa Morrice to confess the fun of imagining the crusty Laughtons as the fading Wycherlys, each of whom commissions a robot version of him- or herself to serve as a post-death replacement. But these vain gift-givers design flattering avatars with no thought to what the recipient might want in a companion: She demands to be reborn as a combination scholar and sexual wildcat, he as a stud with a 79 IQ and the works of Zane Grey in his head.
Once the packages are opened, hijinks ensue, and everything is danced and acted with considerable wit by Jessie McLean as the Bride-bot (squeeze her and a pensee comes out) and Josephson himself, on press night, as a Chippendale-bot. There’s visual pleasure aplenty on the Fremont’s crackerbox stage but nothing quite so touching as real, tiny marionettes representing Mr. and Mrs. in youth and old age, achieving the same heart-tugs as a similar sequence in Pixar’s “Up” in affirming the joy of finally accepting life’s terms.
Hoke’s ravishing principal waltz, and explorations with more modern styles, mesh nicely with Bradbury’s naively charming lyrics. Sometimes the author gets off a wryly cynical snap, as in a reference to one sign of Christmas approaching as “pumpkin heads rotting on the porch.”
But grace, not bite, is the order of the day here.