Pillar Studio

Like most everyone growing up as part of the X-traterrestrial generation, I went through a science-fiction phase during the 70s: inspired by the Apollo missions, space dust, and Steven Spielberg, we snarfed down the works of all the popular sci-fi authors. One of my family members (who shall remain nameless) even attended a Star Trek convention. What brought the sci-fi phase to an abrupt end for me was the disturbing revelation that virtually all the stories were incredibly depressing. Rather than provide us with fantastic visions of future societies, authors like Burgess and Clarke painted grim, unemotional pictures of alienated, postapocalyptic worlds. Our dream of friendly aliens shaking hands with us was quickly transformed into the solitary nightmare of Major Tom drifting aimlessly through a silent, lonely, infinitely empty outer space.

Whatever validity these futuristic visions may have, science-fiction plays generally don’t work. The way authors continually explain, and often overexplain, their fictional worlds can lead to lots of stultifying exposition bogged down by jargon. And the way they frequently depict the future as cold and unfeeling often means an emotionally uninvolving play.

Steve Pickering’s The Screwfly Solution, in its world-premiere production at Pillar Studio, is ultimately crippled by its length and by its numbing obsession with detail. What might have been a tremendously compelling one-act has been padded out with tiresome exegeses and a 25-minute intermission. (I once met a playwright who told me that he’d written a half-hour play, “But with a 15-minute intermission, it runs 45 minutes.”) Pickering’s play provides one of the most gripping hours of theater I’ve seen in quite some time. The trouble is that extra hour and 40 minutes.

Set in 1954, The Screwfly Solution is based on a nihilistic short story by the late James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). Men have hatched a cockeyed plan to save the world by ridding it of humanity: the idea is to transform men from loving husbands into woman-killing machines and to force the dwindling female population into hiding or refugee camps.

As Dr. Barnard Brathewaite leads a worldwide symposium to discuss the epidemic of feminocide, Alan Alstein is on a scientific mission in South America. But by the time he’s able to return to his wife and teenage daughter it’s too late, for the disease is out of control and even he feels himself succumbing to the violent tendencies it engenders. This is not so much a cautionary tale as it is a hopeless one, foretelling an inescapable cycle of destruction set in motion by men themselves.

In Pillar Studio’s production, director Hallie Gordon works up a good deal of suspense, eliciting deeply felt performances from all the principal performers. Particularly engaging is Amy Landecker’s profoundly sympathetic, heroic Anne Alstein, who slowly loses her grip on sanity as she realizes that she may well be the last human being on earth.

But unfortunately, editing scripts was apparently not among Gordon’s responsibilities. There are entire scenes and passages here that serve virtually no purpose. As the giddy teen Amy Alstein, Shannon Stepan beautifully delivers a monologue about youthful infatuation, but it does little except drum up sympathy for yet another victim of a diseased murderer. And Dr. Brathewaite’s long explanations (made even longer by Paul Adelstein’s “uh . . . uh . . . ” delivery) only confuse what will become obvious later. Pickering seems to have assumed that the philosophical weight of a play is directly correlated with the physical weight of the script. Longer does not necessarily mean better, and in this case longer is deadly.


Theatre Police

at Prop Theatre

A similar affliction debilitates the Theatre Police’s adaptations of a British sci-fi author, “An Evening of J.G. Ballard.” Concrete Island, one of two one-acts, is an often engaging but ultimately frustrating production beset by turtlesque pacing and needless repetition. Heavily laden with existentialist symbolism, Norman Kaeseberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s story takes place on a traffic island where a white-collar stiff named Maitland finds himself marooned after a car crash. His companions are a crazed, inarticulate man named Proctor–an urban-homeless version of Caliban–and Jane, a woman of ill repute. From the very beginning we know that Maitland will never leave the island, that somehow he’ll find a solitary freedom here, away from the constructs of contemporary society. And for a time, watching Maitland transform from an unwilling captive to virtual ruler of the island is intriguing and unsettling. His interactions with Proctor (acrobatically played by William Haugse) are especially compelling.

But the overwhelmingly grim vision of humanity presented here, especially Maitland’s cruelty toward his fellow islanders, becomes too much to bear after a short while. The philosophy is presented far too heavy-handedly to inspire much interest. And the themes of isolation and alienation are belabored intolerably. Even existential messages need to be presented within a reasonable length of time, or the cast risks the ultimate form alienation–performing the same scenes over and over before an empty house.

Though Kaeseberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s The Intensive Care Unit is far more concise, it’s even less effective as theater. A 30-minute monologue delivered in conjunction with video images, this is yet another pessimistic vision of the future, foreseeing a time when humans will communicate and copulate only through their television screens.

In The Intensive Care Unit, one man’s attempt to finally meet the wife and children he’s known only through video monitors results in horrific tragedy: the shock of sudden companionship and overwhelming emotion leads the family members to murder one another. Pretty grim stuff. But because Ballard’s vision is of human beings estranged from their own emotions, the characters remain at a distance and the audience remains uninvolved. Even more alienating is the poor quality of the video work that depicts the protagonist and his family. What good is theatrical vision if the video isn’t in focus?

Television as the 20th-century opiate of the masses is a theme that’s been addressed hundreds of times before, from the op-ed pages of the Tribune (warning of the dangers of virtual reality) to the opening-credit sequence of The Simpsons. And without any original ideas to guide it, even a tightly performed piece about a man interacting with blurry TV images doesn’t make for much of a play.