I love science fiction. Not for the science or the fiction but for the exaggerations on reality. I love exploring unreal events that lead to unreal-ized emotions. Black Mirror, Rick and Morty, Flowers for Algernon, Contact, Independence Day – works of impossible fiction provide a context for real discussions of social change. My favorite sci-fi sets its metaphors for ‘kill’ and prefers its social commentary thinly veiled, if at all. Captain Picard’s articulation of our hopeful children’s children’s children’s future: “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy.” Will Smith showing us what a global identity might feel like when he punches that alien in the face – “Welcome to earth!” Some ideas are too big to be staged in sleepy countrysides.
Presenting sci-fi at the MN Fringe Festival, on a small stage rather than a big screen (with 10 minutes of load-in time) is a very different experience than a Hollywood blockbuster or a Netflix binge-a-thon. No special effects, no photon torpedoes, no portal guns, just stories and actors. On the final day of the 2017 MN Fringe Festival I got to watch 6 groups of artists daring enough to present lo-fi sci-fi. To boldly go where (perhaps) no one has gone before.
“We all have ghosts, right?”
Waiting in the lobby of the Jungle Theater, a “stagehand” came around collecting all audience member’s first names on a waiver along with the warning “You may see a ghost onstage”. There were no programs, but we were each handed a flashlight on our way in. I was intrigued. I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost.
The two-person show started slowly with the couple waking up and getting ready for the day… but hints kept popping up that something was awry. I spent most of the first 15 minutes trying to figure it out. Is this a Sixth Sense thing? Who’s the ghost? One of them? Both of them? Am I the ghost? I didn’t mind spending these first minutes distracted because the opening of the play was a little clunky. Exposition seemed forced and some of the early dialogue could use another round of edits. BUT THEN this play started going places. We see our protagonist’s crummy night-shift job giving ‘ghost tours’ through a haunted basement – the crappy bag lunch, the un-sympathetic co-worker, the fake smile to the patrons. As part of the tour guide spiel we learn the importance of the buddy system (to avoid the ghosts), the best way to prevent a demonic possession-in-progress (1. Hold your buddy’s hand 2. Assure them they’re not alone 3. Help them focus on their real senses to bring them back to reality), the perils of being stuck in a dead end job, and general sheep-like nature of people who go to haunted houses. I’m more intrigued.
Between tours, our protagonist talks with a co-worker about trauma from a past relationship. Soon the dialogue of the show is not about ghosts so much as it is about what follows us from our past. The memories and habits and expectations we have of people, not discussed through the usual metaphor of ‘baggage’ but through the metaphor of ghosts. In another scene or two, all of the science and all of the fiction has crumbled around us to reveal a show about a young person trying to exorcise the ghosts of the past. The entire show culminates in a startlingly emotional scene played in darkness and lit only by the flashlights of the audience. Amidst chaotic lighting and a chaotic mess being made onstage (by off-stage hands but presumably by wicked apparitions), we see our protagonist in the fight of a lifetime: Hand-to-hand combat, trying to ward off a demonic possession before it’s too late. The scene was patient, a less daring production would have made it half as long. But it was perfect, the noise and the chaos gradually grew, pushing the tension of the audience to a breaking point until finally our protagonist breaks free of the ghost and grasps for any piece of reality to be found. The only thing within reach is the real hand of a real audience member in the front row. And the metaphor lands – the buddy system – how to avoid the ghosts – how to fight off the demons that try to control us. With the real audience member our protagonist goes through the steps we learned on the ghost tour ‘Hold my hand. Tell me I’m not alone. I feel your hand. I hear your voice. I’m holding on to reality. I won’t let my ghosts take control.’ And there it is. In that moment the audience realizes the ghost-tour curriculum was not frivolous – it was a real world guide for how to help a person in an impossible situation. When a friend or family member needs our help and we don’t have the words…these are the words. After the climactic scene, our protagonist has broken free and the stage is filled with garbage. At this point the audience was invited onstage to help clean up this mess (under the guise that it would take too long to clean up on their own). Many audience members quickly jumped to their feet to help. Some audience members stayed in their seats, clearly deep in thought. This was brilliant. The show was not short on time and they didn’t logistically need the audience’s help. But the audience needed a tangible thing to do – if we had been asked to sit politely in our seats it would have felt too heavy, too voyeuristic, we needed to reach out to our protagonist and take an active role. We were offered a tangible way to help…to practice helping…to get in the habit of helping…it was reality practice. If the creators hadn’t called this ‘The Unnamed Show’ and given their piece a literal title it could have been “An Instruction Manual for Not Being Destroyed by Your Traumatic Past in One Act” or “Possible Solutions for Impossible Situations: a Theatrical Guidebook”. But those aren’t very good titles, perhaps there is no good title. This untitled show felt like a workshop performance of a great piece in progress. I’d love to see it again a year from now.
Staged in the warehouse space of the Crane Theater, this piece was the work of six ambitious young actors and musicians. It told a dream-like story of a woman who was alternatingly in-touch and out-of-touch with reality. Through some facts and some fictions the audience pieces together the events that lead her to this situation: A fatal car crash, landing her here in purgatory. The other five actors are the dressed-in-black puppet masters (both literal and figurative) of our heroine. These five men do most of the talking, guide most of the action, and manipulate most of the woman’s thoughts. At one point the woman is referred to as their ‘Persephone’, which would mythologically mean these five unnamed men are from the underworld (perhaps Hades, Cerberus, and Hermes). With these men of the underworld doing 95% of the talking, they are ostensibly our protagonists. Writing a piece with unlikable protagonists is a tall order and this play with music did not rise to the occasion. In the 11th hour, the woman does take control and overcomes the five men. Theoretically this proves that she was our heroine the entire time but the audience has just seen 48 minutes of men making decisions and 2 minutes of our heroine doing so. If this theatrical team wanted to tell the tale of a woman taking control of her story, they should have let her do more of the talking. The sincere intentions of this piece were clear and I hope to see more of their work in years to come.
This story is insane.
Based on an existing work of fiction, this play opens on an ordinary small town that wakes up to find at least 50 toddlers abandoned on front steps around town. The kindhearted people take them in and care for them until their real parents can be found. The sheriff and the mayor are on the case and it seems like there’s nothing to worry about. The play takes a patient approach. We spend about 20 minutes with these surprised ‘parents’, hearing that some families have named the children and some hope the real parents never return. All is well. And then it most definitely isn’t well, not even a little. Utopia becomes dystopia overnight as every member of the town who’s held one of the toddlers falls sick and dies. The remaining townsfolk figure out that the ‘bundles of joy’ have been infected with a disease (to which the toddlers are immune) and released to this town as a means of war. Everything is awful.
The remaining members of the town are forced with the question of what to do with the toddlers. Care for them and become infected? Ignore them and probably live? Kill them and eliminate the threat? This play gets real dark real fast. It turns into an examination of the worst parts of human nature – where our need for self-preservation meets our basic empathy. This play is science fiction as thought exercise. It provokes a question we hopefully never need to answer. It was grandiose and absurd and captivating for 55 minutes. A two-act version of this story would have been too long, but what the actors presented was one giant heavy thought. And I’m in favor of giant heavy thoughts. I doubt a piece of this subject matter will ever find an audience outside the Fringe Festival, but I appreciate my non war-torn life a little more after seeing it.
Visually, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the ‘set design’: the staging was minimal with only one noteworthy set piece. Upstage, in one row, were 9 red helium balloons on long strings. This visual was lovely against the back wall of the Ritz Theater. When the plot mentioned ‘packages’ being lowered from the sky by red balloons, the 9 physical balloons were all slowly pulled down to striking effect. It was a simple concept but it worked beautifully. Speaking of red balloons going by… this story has parallels to the most popular dystopian radio-earworm of 1984. Give it listen.
Full disclosure: I know a few members of the team who created this show.
Fuller disclosure: I would never hesitate to give my friends a bad review.
This show is amazing.
It could be made into an episode of Black Mirror tomorrow and it would be perfect.
If Tilda Swinton and Christopher Nolan aren’t busy, they could make the movie version and box offices would explode.
Presented in the Southern Theater, this play was (in my opinion) a perfect work of science fiction. Set in a believable future (not dystopian, more Brave New World than 1984), we see a functional society in which every person has surgically embedded technology. People’s implants are not mandatory, just as iPhones are not mandatory in 2017. That being said, everyone has them and is constantly upgrading to the latest system. In our play, the latest system is ‘Mnemosyne’ (named after the Greek deity of memory) (rhymes with ‘velocity’). We see the new system being unveiled in a Steve Jobs-esque presentation, complete with contract lengths and service plans. This technology will allow you to purchase memories. Not videos or images, but actual memories from actual people that you will experience with all five senses as though you lived them yourself.
Pause. If this actually existed, it would be the new status symbol. Forget yachts or private islands; the rich would hoard memories, they’d be given for birthday gifts, stolen from the helpless, traded on a stock exchange.
Resume. In the play, memories are bought and sold to the point they become the only relevant currency. Memory brokers are very powerful people and those too poor (of finance or judgment or confidence) to keep their own are left completely devoid of memories, unable to recall their own names. This play not only has an incredible concept but also incredible writing: presented with a great balance of dialogue and monologue, the exposition was smooth and audience’s interest was tended at all times. Seeing how this world came to be, how it rose and ultimately fell, seeing its members realize its shortcomings and attempt to go back to another way was captivating for 60 minutes. It even fulfilled my final requirement for great science fiction: to direct the audience in how to apply this concept back to the real world. The show’s final scene is poetic and graceful, instilling in the audience the value of memory. Presenting a cautionary tale in which no one has their own memories or knows if anything is genuinely theirs. We are presented with the idea that memories are all we have, that stories are all we are. Make some, share some, never part with them.
Also: The actor who portrayed Mnemosity was perfect, both powerful and kind as all we hope our deities will be. The costumes were great, clearly establishing the world without needing physical sets. Their use of movement helped tell the story without ever being distracting. The show didn’t feel like a dance piece but it would have been incomplete without the gentle choreography.
I wish I could tell you to see it but I caught the last performance. Until it’s hopefully remounted, check out another perfect piece of science fiction: The Entire History of You
“Is it actually better to be real? Is it?”
Here’s the deal: At this point in the day I had seen four plays, the last of which demanded all of my attention to fully process. I walked to the Mixed Blood Theater ready to be super disappointed in Pinocchio. Also, I saw the Children’s Theatre version of Pinocchio last year and it was maybe the best piece of theater I’ve ever seen. How could any production jump over this bar I had set? Even after finding a seat in the nearly sold-out crowd I was skeptical. Even after it started with a lot of jokes, actually good jokes, I had doubts. I was still ready for this to be some campy version of the old story. Even after the jokes and the presentation of Geppetto as an Italian mobster I was ready to hate it. I was ready to write a review about how this tired story was fodder for a few jokes but nothing more. But I can’t write that review, because it was amazing.
Yes, it started with very self-aware jokes. As it must, after all, wouldn’t a life-sized doll with a giant nose be terrifying? Wouldn’t a cricket live only a week before dying of old age? Once the play alleviated our doubts with humor, they got to it: a new presentation of an old piece of sci-fi. Can a 134 year old Italian story be considered science fiction? Yes. Thank you for asking. This presentation of the story was entirely true to the original story, complete with most of the standard plot points and characters. But it was adapted to be a new telling, both for the sake of uniqueness and to appease a 2017 audience. But not for jokes, not for mocking the original tale, or turning it into something it’s not. These actors distilled the original tale and the original morals of the story and wrapped them in a new context; perfectly presenting them in all of their sincerity: It’s still true that you shouldn’t spend your whole life on ‘Pleasure Island’ or you’ll become a literal jackass. It still matters that you go to school and become a better version of yourself. It’s still hard to be your own conscience but you must! It’s still true that family is important, even when that family is unlikely. It’s still worth wishing upon a star.
For the ‘encore’ slot, I chose the first show I saw that had the term ‘sci-fi’ in the description. I went back to the Jungle Theater and knew nothing about what I was about to see…which was perfect.
Hit the Lights! Theater Co. is based in New York and “…focuses on the interplay between darkness and light, utilizing shadow puppetry as the lifeblood of their storytelling.” What I saw was 55 minutes of shadow puppets and physical movement, with (perhaps) no written dialogue (just interjections here and there). Being a lover of spoken stories, I would have chosen another show if I had read the description carefully. But I’m glad I didn’t, I was entranced the whole time. This show told the tale of a man (both real and, alternatingly, in puppet form) walking through a lovely meadow on a sunny day when his sister falls down an opening in the ground and enters a dungeon. He chooses to jump down and pursue her. For the majority of the show we see him going through twists and turns (an underground forest, caves, a vast ocean, enormous spider webs), meeting a wild cast of characters (a phosphorescent snake made from funny-sounding tubing, a Tinkerbelle-like fairy, an evil spider) and narrowly escaping certain death. Stage lights were off for the entire piece with all lighting and shadow-puppet effects being created by the actors. It sometimes felt like a dance piece as our hero swam under the sea and fought giant spiders. It sometimes sounded like an avant-garde composition with live underscore primarily by effected electric bass (played in complete darkness) to incredible effect. This piece was a visual spectacle of tremendous expertise. In the hands of anyone less capable it would have certainly fallen flat, it was very deserving of its encore.
“We all have a thirst for wonder. It's a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I'm saying is, you don't have to make stories up, you don't have to exaggerate. There's wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature's a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” Sorry Carl Sagan, agree to disagree on this one.