Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy' is an ambitious spectacle where the iconic cars steal the show

Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy' at the Saint Paul RiverCentre

Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy' at the Saint Paul RiverCentre Rich Ryan

Mixed Blood's latest production, Autonomy, ponders our collective impending doom with a thick layer of nostalgia. The drive-through play, written by Ken Lazebnik and directed by Jack Reuler, takes place in Saint Paul RiverCentre amidst an impressive collection of vintage cars.


Saint Paul Rivercentre

In the program the sports cars, hot rods, rare vintage cars, and cars from popular culture, including Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine and the Batmobile, are listed as “supporting characters” along with their owners. They serve as a scene-stealing backdrop for the promenade-style play. Rare vintage cars like the BMW Isetta, a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, five different Corvettes, and a 1961 Ford Econoline are part of the dazzling setting.

Playwright Ken Lazebnik packs a lot in to his script. Setting the majority of the action in 2022, he envisions a bleak world where a contagion unleashed by melting ice caps threatens humanity's existence. There’s also an immigration policy even more horrific than our current one.

The cars themselves are the main draw of the event, and the episodic play within it dims in comparison. That's too bad, because if you are going to write a play about climate change and it's outshone by a parade of gas guzzling machines, it takes a bit away from your message.

Americans aren't just addicted to cars; we worship them like Gods. And that's how they are displayed through the RiverCentre's exhibition space. They loom magnificently, enticingly. Car culture is part of our American identity, as evidenced through our films, our books, and our continued dependence on them. They may be pretty, but they are also contributing to the demise of our world. The play's reverence for cars perhaps contains irony, but it seems more like just reverence.

Audiences ride along glo-rope-lined aisles in go-karts as the actors play out scenes investigating the question of whether driverless cars are the answer to climate change disaster. On the one side of the debate are characters like Amy Anderson. “Autonomous are the best hope for climate change,” she says.

Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy' at the Saint Paul RiverCentre

Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy' at the Saint Paul RiverCentre Rich Ryan

Also on team-autonomous is the ebullient MC, played by Harry Waters Jr., who not only sells the audience on self-driving cars, but sings his enthusiasm for them. Waters' one scene is the most successful in the play, in part because he commits fully to the satire of his character.

Other characters are more hesitant of the potential of an app-controlled future. Mechanic Tip Donnelly, played by Bruce A. Young, and nonagenarian Herb Schecter, played by Michael Laskin, fear not only the safety and ethics of driverless cars, but the loss of autonomy that has come with the digital age.

Neither side of the debate is particularly convincing, perhaps because Lazebnik ties the pro-autonomous vehicle side with the evil corporations hell-bent on controlling every aspect of people's lives. The anti-technology folks wax poetic about the pre-digital age, and end up sounding out of touch.

There's no talk of bicycles in this play (though we do find out the evil corporate men ride scooters and Segways). There are also no trains. The autonomous vehicles themselves, in LaZebnik's vision of the future, are multi-passenger, but regular old buses are never discussed as a viable option. While this is a play, not a treatise, it does seem a bit odd to have such a large discussion about climate change and transportation and omit these modes of transportation.

Beyond the play's message, this is an ambitiously constructed spectacle, and opening night was an impressive feat of logistics, timing, and space. Ear devices provided to each audience member ensured you could hear what the actors were saying in that large space, which was a nice touch. A lot of resources went into the show and the production value is high -- and it shows. If we're ever going to solve the looming environmental destruction, these artists want to help us start talking about it.

Saint Paul RiverCentre
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