FACING OFF Phone operators struggle with mechanization.
In 1919, a New York switchboard room of the American Bell Telephone Company is vertiginously perched between eras: The three women working the switchboards are soon to be replaced by automation, big business is getting bigger, gender and ethnicity are flashpoints for emotion, and technology is changing how everybody knows everyone else. This is the world of Switch Triptych, Adriano Shaplin's provocative, very smart tragicomedy about early corporate America and the American worker. Big Picture Group makes the cultural moment even dizzier, under the direction of Bowdoin theater professor Roger Bechtel at Portland Stage Company's Studio Theater, by staging this period piece with sleek, modern, and ominous multi-media elements. The future, in this superbly acted, stunningly produced show, is already there.
The "triptych" is first visible in the set's three switchboard stations, which face upstage, and above which hang three flat-screen monitors on the back wall. The monitors sometimes screen vintage footage of the era's workers, and other times are fed directly from cameras on the switchboard desks, thereby displaying low-fi, low-angle images of the very different operators at work: Center stage, queen bee Lucille (Janice Gardner, magnificently over-lush) is a boozy, rhapsodic middle-aged Italian in black veils and feathers, who spouts laconic monologues about technology, the human body, and Catholicism. Phillippa (the sharp, candid, and very funny Sammie Francis) is a spunky, gum-chewing young working girl at once naive and knowing. And the new hire June (Abigail Killeen, like a cold burn) is a precise, watchful Brit who is more than she seems. Together the three, managed by ineffectual Truman (Hal Cohen, with perfect hang-dog pathos) and the ambitious, sarcastic second-in-command Andrew (Khalil LeSaldo, whose smile is spiked with sadism), present a microcosm of perspectives toward work and solidarity at a time roiling with changes — the most immediate being that they are soon to be replaced with a machine.
They all work in an office where nobody's legally protected from a feel-copping boss or guaranteed a 40-hour week — let alone allowed collective-bargaining rights — so it's a little like the Wild West of office environments: Insults are profane, the drinking starts early, there's an exciting new technology to play around with, and nobody's really in charge. Pippa rings up the Boston exchange to chat with its ribald Irish operators (whom Lucille hatefully dismisses as Protestant potato-and-children-eaters), and Lucille is directing business calls to the highest bidder. Meanwhile the benevolent Truman, unable to control anybody, moons about trying to quit drinking, while Andrew waves Irish coffee under his nose and looks for opportunities. Shaplin is a master of shrewd, jagged, anachronism-studded dialogue that constantly surprises, and in delivering it, Bechtel's excellent cast has breathtaking agility, focus, and wit. Their characters' banter, on everything from cardboard milk containers to what kind of Christian "worships at the feet of a corporation," is alternately hilarious, jarring, and poignant.
There is a lot going on at any given moment in this play — the script is almost overwhelmingly dense — and Bechtel's direction emphasizes characters' roles and relationships visually in some exquisite blocking, holding his actors in tableaux that contrast watchful gazes with dropped eyes, slouching characters with kneeling, supine, or regal ones. Between these subtle visuals and the grotesquerie of, say, three Lucilles up on the monitors trying to out-switch the new automation, this show explores the power dynamics, flaws, and fates of human beings vis à vis each other, technology, and the Corporation.