Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in SF Theater: A Top Ten List

In 2012, I began to seek out theater that had elements of science fiction. It's been a rewarding experience, especially since it's led me to shows I wouldn't otherwise have seen. SF has a vibrant and exciting environment Off-Off-Broadway. It only rarely appears Off-Broadway, and its sole representative on Broadway is Spider-Man (though you could stretch your definition to include Peter & the Starcatcher). To cap the year, enjoy my top ten list of SF theater, in no particular order. If this 2012 list proves anything, it's that Off-Off-Broadway is vibrant with smart, entertaining science fiction. 

Best show(s)
playwright: Mac Rogers
director: Jordana Williams
company: Gideon Productions

Hands down the best SF work of 2012, Mac Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy staged the decades-long story of an alien invasion in three full-length realistic dramas. This trio of plays deserves any number of year-end titles and awards. Most audacious vision: a trilogy of two-act, well-made dramas whose insight into the relationship between individual character and cultural dynamics closely resembled the dramaturgy of Henrik Ibsen. Aside from the giant telepathic wasps. Uncanniest aliens: those wasps, never seen onstage―except, memorably, for one nine-foot-long leg! Their hive-mind telepathy, the mirror opposite to humanity's individuality, had produced an anarcho-communist civilization beyond the imagination of Bakunin. Yet the species had destroyed their planet's ecosystem, and now hoped to save humanity from the same fate.  Most memorable character: protagonist Ronnie, who began as a hellion teen and ended as the iron-backed governor of Florida. Each episode of the trilogy uncovered new sides to this knotty role, from her daddy issues in part 1 to her maternal ambivalence in part 3.  Kinkiest romance: a homosexual, interspecies love affair between Ronnie's awkward younger brother and an astronaut whose mind had been replaced by the wasp hive's ambassador. Their relationship may've been unconventional but it was in no way deviant. Each psyche passionately desired communion with the other, which ironically led to both men betraying their species and losing each other.  Greatest undertaking: As befits a scifi epic, Honeycomb took plenty of chutzpah to produce; more established and high-profile theaters than Gideon Productions would've balked. To unroll the trio of shows, Jordana Williams directed her team of designers and 27 actors over a six-month period. The result was a thorough success, stupendous theater full of intellectual heft, emotional drama, and entertaining action. Mac Rogers' trilogy proved that science fiction need not lose its fantastic elements to be great theater.
Keeping it real in Spaceman
(credit: Clint Brandhagen)

Smartest AI or robot
playwright: Eddie Antar
director: Leslie Kincaid Burby
company: Workshop Theater Company

The canniest binary character of 2012 wasn't a killer robot, megalomaniac supercomputer, or cyborg demanding its rights. Rather, it was an extraordinary GPS. Spying into the future, the title character of The Navigator advised its owner on his best course of action, from shortcuts of Westchester County to the path to financial security and finally smartest route back into his wife's heart. In a smart theatrical twist, writer Eddie Antar personified the GPS as a character, played superbly by an android-icy Kelly Anne Burns. Her chemistry with her owner allowed the show to dramatize the relationship of Americans to our technology. In counterpoint, the production itself was charmingly low-fi―mainly a pair of chairs & steering wheel to represent a car. This charming comedy recalled The Twilight Zone at its fuzziest and most humane. And its heroine, by dint of her uncanny gift for prophecy, was the smartest computer of 2012―and the most winsome.

Most nightmarish dystopia
playwright/director: Adam Rapp
company: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Even as Lower Manhattan nearly became a literal wasteland after Hurricane Sandy, it also saw a dystopia arise in Adam Rapp's latest play. Superficially, Through the Yellow Hour was a realistic three-scene drama, but (as some reviewers complained) its reality didn't quite convince. New York, depopulated and reduced to rubble by chemical dirty bombs, was under curfew enforced by armored gangs of foreign jihadis who castrate men. Improbably, they're funded by the 1% as part of a plan to cull humanity and practice eugenics. Rapp's scenario resisted plausibility; instead it possessed the irrationality of a fever dream. A dingy LES studio apartment, stripped of everything but a toilet and bathtub, lent the stage its innate claustrophobia, while a soundtrack of gunfire supplemented reports of the disfigured cityscape beyond its walls. Even when illogic and over-ripe dialogue threatened to puncture the illusion, its dream-like atmosphere held its coherence.

Cosmic comedy in Space//Space
(credit: Ryan Jensen)

Deadliest Apocalypse
playwrights: Marc Bovino & Joe Curnette
director/co-creator: Lila Neugebauer
company: The Mad Ones

Samuel and Alasdair jettisoned the conventional tropes of endtimes and robotry yet it delivered the year's most vivid and hopeless apocalypse. A Siberian AM radio station aired a corn-pone romance of small-town Americana, interrupting their tale with country tunes, call-in contests, and more ominously, power outages and strange sonic feedback. The claustrophobic setting and its anonymous broadcasters disclosed an obscured history, one where, back in the Eisenhower era, atomic-era robots exterminated North America with death-ray eyes and telescoping limbs. The radio show suggested that the Russians were paying homage to a lost civilization, infusing the atmosphere with a lonely melancholy. The modest charms of the format (and the live foley-work) of radio was undercut by the hosts' fear and absence of hope. A minimalist style of performance encouraged attentiveness and focus, repaid by a superbly executed production. Though it was a eulogy for humanity, Samuel and Alasdair was deeply moving.

Hardest SF
playwright/director: Steven Gridley
company: Loading Dock

Spaceman imagined humanity's first trip to Mars with a pleasantly realistic approach. Rather than having an interplanetary adventure, its protagonist faced a numb routine of flight checks, the invisible hazard of cosmic radiation, the stifle of recycled air, and worst of all, the loneliness of the void. In this respect, the show's conflict was almost entirely internal, depicting the psyche of a person in extreme conditions. A smart script guided Erin Treadway's tight performance, helping her to hold the stage alone for almost the entire show. By avoiding the SF clich├ęs of interplanetary travel, Spaceman brought out the true heroism of space exploration and the sense of wonder and transcendence that a Mars shot would have, yet the show didn't stint on the human cost. It may have presented a trip to Mars as a Beckett-like essay in tedium―but it was riveting.

Most far-out
playwright: Jason Craig
director: Mallory Catlett
company: Banana Bag & Bodice

Space madness with a method, Space//Space practiced avant-garde irony and destabilization to take its audience on a psychedelic journey. Set within a plexiglass pod in the interstellar void, the drama staged a “failed scientific experiment” involving a pair of twin brothers whose hamster outfits literalized their roles as lab rats. As one brother began to lose his sanity, the other spontaneously became a woman, as if gender were simply a quantum instability. Later, in a stunning theatrical coup, the actress (Jessica Jelliffe) stripped her costume to reveal a belly six months pregnant. Naked and serene, she took on the cosmic aspect of a goddess as she seemed to guide her fearful brother into his space odyssey of death/rebirth. Delightfully abstruse, Space//Space blew our collective mind, a reminder that SF can have a strong component of cosmic weirdness.

Radio days in Samuel & Alasdair
(credit: Ian Saville)
Coolest relic of a past SF production

Oddly, all that's left of a 1980 Off-Off-Broadway space-opera is a radio show and a comic book. A still-strong signal from the DIY scene of NYC yesteryear, Starstruck glue-gunned the puckish anarchism of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the radical feminism of its time and place. Then, once the show closed, its playwright/director/star (Elaine Lee) collaborated with her neighbor, a famous young illustrator (Michael Kaluta), on a prequel that drew on the deco aesthetic of Flash Gordon. For two decades, issues were published by Marvel Comics and Dark Horse; in 2012, IDW reprinted the full series in paperback. But despite that corporate pedigree, the comic is a revolutionary work, just as dense and complex as caped classics like Watchmen but far more enlightened and far less serious. Meanwhile, Lee adapted the play for radio & webcast in 2010. Now, you can read the TPB, download the audio play, and return for the first time to the stellar adventures of Galatia 9 as she leads a space revolution against her evil sister!

Most overrated
playwright/director: Jay Scheib
company: The Kitchen

Jay Scheib continued to earn applause for his experimental theater in 2012 with World of Wires. His latest piece adapted a 1970s TV drama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which in turn was based on a '60s SF paperback. All three versions followed a computer scientist who begins to suspect he's actually inside one of his VR programs. The plot had noirish tones, with a dead body, an icy blonde, and a political conspiracy. But Scheib's method of staging felt cold, analytic, and ultimately uncompelling as anything more than an showcase for his obscurantist style of blocking the action behind walls of sheetrock and instead projecting it on flatscreen TVs. Yes, got it, the actors have been digitized. Scheib's style was more architectural than dramatic, failing to fracture the space-time of the stage in any theatrically productive way. Unlike the critics who raved about his work, I heard in World of Wires a snide, insider tone―alienation not as philosophy but as a measure of cool.

Starstruck: A Girl's Guide
to Space Anarchy
(image: Michael Wm. Kaluta)

The One I Missed
playwright: August Schulenburg
director: Heather Cohn
company: Flux Theater Ensemble

Because a play only exists at one point in time, and so do I, I missed some good SF theater. This year, I'd rent a time machine to catch Deinde. A drama about quantum computing, neuropsychology, and a global pandemic, this drama sounded like exactly the sort of theater that I love. The company, Flux Theater Ensemble, has produced solid SF in the past (Dog Act) and later in the year, they would deliver a satisfying rom-com that mixed '60s romance comics with '40s vigilante action-adventure (Hearts Like Fists). Critics recommended Deinde, theatergoers buzzed about it, I even had tickets―and I couldn't go. Instead, I had to cover the bloated, blundering Broadway musicals during the April/May pre-Tony blitz. Won't make that mistake again.