Noam Chomsky, the dead-serious linguist and critic of American capitalism and imperialism, has had his brushes with the goofier realms of pop culture, from an invitation to appear on “Saturday Night Live”...
“Manufacturing Mischief,” which will have its premiere run on April 26-27 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts a mini-Chomsky onstage alongside Elon Musk, Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. Created by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, it features a zany plot involving a technology contest, a contraption called the Print-a-Friend and a surprise appearance by Donald Trump. There’s also plenty of high-flown debate about technology, freedom and inequality.
The play, which was scripted by Paul Hufker and directed by Meghan Finn, grew out of an artistic residency Reyes had last fall at MIT, Chomsky’s longtime intellectual home, and a place suffused, as Reyes put it, with “techno-optimism.”
“MIT has this very beautiful culture of hands-on creativity,” he said in a telephone interview. “But there is also this idea that whatever the problem is, the solution is technology.”
We spoke with Reyes about getting Chomsky’s blessing for the project, and about the other main characters in his mini-drama of big ideas, which will travel to Carnegie Mellon University as part of its Marx@200 series from May 10-13 and to the Tank in New York from June 5-24.
After arriving at MIT, Reyes met with Chomsky to float the idea of a puppet play riffing on his criticisms of artificial intelligence research and the social impact of technology. As a prop/ambassador, Reyes brought along a puppet of Leon Trotsky, from his 2014 play “The Permanent Revolution.”
“He said: ‘Oh that’s nice. But where is Rosa Luxemburg?'” Reyes recalled. “As it turns out, I also have a puppet of Rosa Luxemburg, so I put her in the show too.”
Chomsky, Reyes said, approved a synopsis of the play (whose title riffs on “Manufacturing Consent,” his 1988 book with Edward S. Herman). As for his puppet likeness, which (like the others) was made in Japan by master puppet-makers in the Bunraku tradition, “he was pleased with it,” Reyes said. (Chomsky didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
The show features a cameo by an undead Steve Jobs, who pipes up, like a clueless Alexa, when a character mentions the impact of automation on “jobs.” But the real skewering is reserved for Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX founder who wants to send humans to Mars.
In the play, Musk (who in real life has called for government regulation of artificial intelligence, even as his startup Neuralink aims to build a brain-computer interface) has enlisted Chomsky as a reluctant judge in a contest to select “The Terrifying New Gadget Which Might Kill Us All.” To Reyes, Musk is the kind of visionary who ignores the more basic needs of the broad mass of humanity.
“The very idea of going to Mars may capture people’s imagination but it’s something that is only accessible to superrich,” he said. “There’s nothing up there anyway. Mars is kind of a boring rock.”
About halfway through the play, Musk puts a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” into the Print-a-Friend, and out pops Ayn Rand, wearing the signature dollar-sign pin she favored in real life.
Reyes read Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” as a teenager, but unsurprisingly is not a fan, though he said that he appreciated her theatrical qualities.
“She’s a great character for comedy because she’s a sociopath,” he said. “There are so many very crazy things she said.”
Chomsky may be the hero of the play, but it’s Marx who bats intellectual cleanup, with a 21st-century rap update of “The Communist Manifesto” that somehow rhymes “tannenbaum” with “Amazon.”
The Marx puppet has appeared (with Adam Smith) in a series of short buddy videos and in “The Permanent Revolution,” alongside Lenin, Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Julian Assange and others.
“Very naïvely, I had this goal of creating a certain literacy though entertainment,” Reyes said. “After I became a parent I found myself wondering, if kids can learn 300 names of Pokémon and ‘Star Wars’ characters, why not some history?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.