Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sci-fi plays eschew the tech, explore the big issues

STLToday: Sci-fi plays eschew the tech, explore the big issues
Remember that scene in "Alien," when the space creature emerges from someplace inside John Hurt?

Or how about the fight in "The Matrix," when Keanu Reeves is suspended in midair?

For that matter, think back to that incredible scene in "Star Wars" when our heroes blew up the Death Star.

Could any of that happen onstage?

No chance. The special effects that give science fiction its adrenaline jolt in the movies and on television depend on technology.

But in live theater, technology usually means something a lot simpler.

Remember that cocktail table that rolled down the stage by itself in "Titanic" last summer at the Muny? On stage, that constitutes a special effect. Heck, when the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged "Dracula" in 2007, audiences were knocked out when a woman seemed to levitate. It was definitely impressive, but that play opened in 1924. You can't exactly call it cutting-edge.

Maybe that's why, even though science fiction is a popular entertainment genre, you don't see a lot of it on stage: Movies and TV can do it better. Nevertheless, two plays with strong sci-fi elements are running here this week: "Intelligent Life" at HotCity Theatre and "Dark Matters," a Stray Dog Theatre Studio Workshop production.

There's no question that they are fiction. Science is another story.

But maybe, says Annamaria Pileggi, they just aren't science fiction the way we usually think of it today. To find more apt comparisons, think of science fiction TV programs from years gone by, like "Star Trek" or "The Twilight Zone."

Those shows used conventions of science fiction as a way to look at other issues: interpersonal relationships, social responsibility, love and loyalty and honor.

Some playwrights today are doing practically the same thing: not writing hard science fiction, but using science fiction conventions to set the stage for issues they want to explore.

That's how Pileggi sees "Intelligent Life," the comedy she's directing at HotCity. In the play, a band of fringe-of-the-fringe characters who call themselves the Utah Alien Chasers think they have found their grail when they encounter a mud-stained boy dressed in a dinosaur costume. Is he from Earth — or someplace else?

"It's not a wannabe movie," said Pileggi. "It is meant for the stage.

"It's about the interaction among these people and how little it takes to get somebody to believe what he or she wants to believe. I think what Lauren (Dusek Albonico, the playwright) has done is quite smart. This is a play about faith." Two years ago, "Intelligent Life" was a finalist in HotCity's Greenhouse New Play Festival.

Albonico — a Washington University alumna from St. Louis who now lives in Santa Fe — told Pileggi that the idea for the play came from her own experiences. No, she does not chase aliens. As a Catholic, however, she was always aware that she believed things that other people in her classes did not. What does that mean, she wondered? To push the question a little harder, she took it to extremes, giving her characters really strange beliefs to insist on — and making them funny.

There's nothing funny about Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Dark Matters" — and nothing very high-tech about it, either. "We do a few things with lighting," said the director, Justin Been. "But the heart of the play lies in the family. Science fiction is just a catalyst to bring up other points."

Set at a remote house in the mountains of Virginia, Aguirre-Sacasa's drama starts with the missing woman. Her husband and their teenage son do all they can to find her, but she's gone. Then, just as suddenly as she vanished, she returns — speaking of strange visitations and other-worldly beings.

"It's more about the thought of aliens than the presence of aliens," Been said. "The people in this family have secrets that test their relationships when they have to deal with them. It isn't humorous but it is suspenseful."

Stories of people who believe things that others dismiss have been told before (Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," Shaw's "Saint Joan," and, closer to home, Deanna Jent's stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis' novel "Till We Have Faces," closing Sunday at Mustard Seed Theatre). Stories of families confronting secrets are legion (Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex"). These aren't just legitimate themes for the stage, they are favorite ones. Science fiction offers just one more way to examine them, through a lens that theatergoers don't often get to look through.

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