BWW Review: THE FINAL VOYAGE OF X MINUS ONE at Counter-Productions Theatre Company
As a theatre reviewer, I have the privilege of watching all kinds of productions. Everything from Shakespeare to locally-written original works is up for grabs. Occasionally, though, one needs to bring in an expert, which is what I opted to do for my review of The Final Voyage of X Minus One at AS220's Black Box theatre. It's not that this production is hard to understand, or less entertaining to those who are not intimately familiar with sci-fi, but genre works tend to have a lot of subtle nods and winks that may go over the layperson's head, and I was concerned about missing something important. So I brought in a ringer, in the form of my geeky husband Ryan Michney, and I've included his thoughts below:
---Andria takes me to a lot of plays these days. While she was reviewing many of the performances she's written about here on Broadway World, I've been sitting next to her, watching, and not reviewing them.
But I've had thoughts! And this time, she wanted me to chip in, because I'm a sci-fi dork, and for the first time I can recall, we went to a sci-fi play.
My first observation was to idly wonder why science fiction is almost never attempted in a theatrical format. When science fiction is done well, it is a genre in which the setting or reality is altered just enough from our world that the story can provide a commentary on our society or human nature. In TV and film, sci-fi as we know it often leans on action and visual effects that can't easily be replicated in a live format--however that is a more of a function of (relatively recent) technical improvements in filmmaking and earlier examples of the format are hardly unachievable live. Think about the Twilight Zone, or the original series of Star Trek. Outside the occasional monster face or phaser blast, there isn't much that couldn't just as easily done as stage as it is on screen. So why isn't it?
This column isn't long enough to address that question, so I'll just leave it hanging in the air like Cloud City.
The Final Voyage of X Minus One is a compilation of four short science-fiction plays in the vein of the pulp and radio anthologies of the 1950's and 60's. Each takes us to different setting with members of the cast playing new characters every time the story re-starts. X Minus One has been performed since 2008, and in this, the final year, Counter-Productions has selected what they believe to be the strongest of the shows they've done.
They chose well, because each of the stories balances drama with speculative fiction and plays with well-worn references to place us in a setting far more rich than a typical black box production could ever hope to achieve through stagecraft alone.
Introduced through a Rod Serling-esque narrator, we travel to four unique worlds.
In "Hallucination Orbit" by J. T. McIntosh (adapted by Ernest Kinoy), we visit a distant space station where the lone officer struggles to keep the hallucinations brought on by his long-term solitude in check. Derek Smith brings a charismatic touch to a man isolated in deep space with no communication to the human race. As the years pass his consciousness creates companions--whom he knows to be figments of his imagination--to fill his hours. As he doubts his grasp of reality he alternates between acceptance and rage, and Smith simmers but never boils over, while a parade of imaginary ex-lovers (portrayed by probably every female member of the cast) appear in order to test his grip on reality.
In "The Parade" by George Lefferts, we visit a PR agency, paid to raise publicity for a (supposedly tongue-in-cheek) "Martian Invasion". Ted Clement plays a note-perfect version of a 1950's operator who quickly loses his cool as events spin far out of his understanding. Steven Zailskas's cool-to-hot performance embodies a "Martian" with aplomb, and Audrey Lavin Crawley manages her I-know-better part with eye-rolling disdain. The costumes perfectly express the idea of what people from the 50's would imagine futuristic clothes to look like. The story never gets ahead of the audience, but the style and presentation puts them in the place of a viewer from two generations ago and presents the most era-specific encapsulation of that brand of entertainment.
In "No Contact" by George Lefferts, we visit the Starship Enterprise...but not quite. Though everything about this setting and performance is James T. Kirk's Starfleet, if we were to look at the written script, it could be an entirely different world. Counter-Productions uses the iconography of Star Trek TOS to bring us a story about deception and espionage set on a starship, and uses their shorthand to do so. In a way, this act nearly counts as fan fiction--but not without some great performances from Christopher Plonka, Meg Taylor-Roth, and Victoria Ezikovich. Unfortunately, this was blocked far too tightly and everyone was on top of each other. In a small black box show without risers putting everyone at different levels there was no reason not to spread out the bridge crew. Though fun from a perspective of "using Star Trek as a shorthand" unlike the first two plays there was no particular underlying message to this, and sci-fi always needs a guiding message.
In "Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin, we visit an emergency relief vessel. As Patrick Keeffe's brave and empathetic Lt. Cmdr Barton heads out to supply a small colony with important medicine, a stowaway, played by Meg Taylor-Roth, endangers his mission. She powerfully brings a tragic love story into this piece.
The stage crew present a simultaneously minimalist and moveable set which accomplishes the narrative goals of these plays. The lighting and voiceover cues work well to put us in the worlds they attempt to establish, where, as we all know, "the computer" or speakerphone is frequently an important character.
The production uses LCARS monitors [big wink at whoever made them and is probably also the only other person reading this who knows what that acronym means], references from Lost, Back to the Future, Star Wars, The Twilight Zone, and more than anything else, Star Trek. The lighting and sound cues are well-executed, they would have to be for any performance of this type to work.
This, like last season's, Kill the Virgin, is a refreshingly enjoyable version of genre fiction onstage. It felt like being dropped into a viewpoint four feet away from a Twilight Zone episode--which is a wonderful feeling. It's a fun performance and it would be difficult to have a bad time as a audience member. With that, I'll pass the baton back to my more expert spouse!
---While the stories presented here are very interesting, it always takes a talented cast to bring them to life. In particular, Ted Clement's performance as the smarmy, money-grubbing promoter in "The Parade" is just perfect in its execution. As events play out counter to what he intended, his mask of smug self-assurance starts to wobble ever so slightly and he manages to convey a palpable panic even while he's still smiling.
Meg Taylor-Roth is absolutely heartbreaking in the final vignette of the evening "Cold Equations". It's hard to say too much without giving away the plot, but this is a performance that will stay with the viewer long after it's over.
Even for those who might be a bit skeptical about going to a sci-fi play, these are well executed human stories that everyone can find something familiar in. And for those who like cataloging references and throwbacks to earlier works, there is plenty of that too. Counter-Productions has concluded the run of X Minus One in a very satisfying way, though new fans may now be disappointed that it's over.
The Final Voyage of X Minus One runs November 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 & 20 at 7pm at AS220's Black Box Theatre 95 Empire St. Providence RI. Tickets are $20 www.cptcri.com