Thoughts on Luna Theater’s “Future Fest”

Posted: April 19, 2013 in Braak, crotchety ranting, revamps, theater
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Yesterday, I saw “Future Fest”, which is a Luna Theater production of short “science fiction plays”, themed around time travel (I guess, kind of?), which whole thing is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. I haven’t been doing a lot of reviews of theater lately, for a lot of reasons, but I saw these plays and because they are plays performed in a theater, and because Luna Theater is selling tickets to them, and because it is a part of a cultural even that I, as a Philadelphian, am ostensibly meant to be interested in (“The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts”, which, I don’t know if that’s a festival of international arts? Or is the festival itself international? Whatever. The point is, it’s not a couple skits some cats were doing in their backyard just for the heck of it), I have decided to write about this.

We need to talk about these plays, guys.

First of all: actors. You all did a fine job. You clearly worked reasonably hard, and threw yourself into the material in a wholly-committed way, as we expect of actors. Well done.

Second of all: writers. I don’t like to have to do this, and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I hope you’re going to hear me out, because I don’t think most people are willing to be as real with you about your plays as I am going to be right now.

Before I get into this, I want to establish a working definition of “science fiction” – it’s a slippery term, with a long history, but I don’t think it’s beyond our ability to understand. Basically, “science fiction” is any form of fiction that uses the language of contemporary science to create hypothetical scenarios beyond the limits of contemporary experience in order to explore the human condition. I would argue that this is not an exceptionally controversial definition, and all good science fiction can be crammed in some way into it, according to three major qualifications: 1) the thing sounds “sciencey” (it does NOT, importantly, have to actually have anything to do with “science”), 2) it is about things that either can’t or don’t happen ordinarily, 3) it nonetheless is interested in some aspect of what it means to be human. (That last criterion, of course, is basically an inescapable rule for all art, since, as human beings, there’s pretty much nothing we can do that ISN’T, in some way, about what it means to be human; there is, nonetheless, a difference between something that is accidentally revealing of humanity by virtue of having been created by humans, and something that is passionately interested in the nature of that humanity.)

I feel like a lot of people who write short plays for short play festivals like this, what happens is NOT that they’ve had this really good idea for a play that uses scientific language to create a hypothetical scenario that explores the human condition, and then they hear about Luna’s play festival and say, “Oh, well, this would be a good platform for this play that I’ve already written and care a lot about and have invested a lot of thought in.” I feel like what DOES happen is that some folks who are playwrights, and habitually write short plays, hear about Luna’s play festival and they say, “Oh, well, I could write a play for this, it’s just science fiction, right?”

Maybe that’s not how it happens, but that is certainly how this festival makes it LOOK, and the reason it looks that way is because, almost uniformly, each of these plays is about its own premise. Each one is fifteen or twenty minutes that is primarily the elaboration of the idea that is at the core of the story, and there are two kind of huge problems with that.

The first problem is that “science fiction” as a genre is already a hundred and fifty or so years old, and it’s not exactly cake to think of a premise that hasn’t already been explored – with a great deal of thought and nuance – somewhere else. This makes it very hard to quickly write something interesting about, say, “What if a man were a robot”, or “the internet is full of junk”; you’ve got the dual challenge here of writing a GOOD PLAY and also finding something NEW AND INTERESTING to say about your premise.

The second problem is the common problem with novice science fiction writers, and that’s the idea that your premise is the important part, and as long as you’ve got one of those, you don’t need to worry about plot or characters. This is incorrect. A good plot and good characters can go a long way to obviating a boring premise; an interesting premise will rarely maintain a piece absent character and story.

Unfortunately, none of the plays in this festival really overcome either of these two problems; the consequence is that the entire two-hour festival is punishingly dull.

Here is what the plays are:

Keep Your Paws Off My Future by Robin Rodriguez

An amateur time traveler thinking she’s visiting the earth one hundred years in the future instead finds herself face-to-face with “God” at the beginning of a new universe.

“Paws” is actually a good example of both of the aforementioned problems. Not only do the only two characters (God, who is a person in a bunny suit, and the Time Traveler, whose name I’ve forgotten) not really have much character beyond “God is a weird person in a bunny suit” and “Time Traveler is an annoying person that nobody from the past much likes”, they also don’t have much of anything to DO during the play. Aside from a few half-hearted attempts to send the Time Traveler back to her own time, God spends most of the play sort of elliptically explaining what’s going on here.

“What’s going on here” actually constitutes the second part of the problem, and I’m going to try and see if I can figure what it is. I THINK what happened is the Time Traveler thought she was going a hundred years in the future, but instead has gone to another universe that the person in the bunny suit is creating or has just created. For some reason not immediately clear to me, that new universe has an archive based on the internet of our universe, but in the past, and is full of televisions that run cat videos constantly for the sake of “Watchers”, that God did not create but wants to placate. God has apparently created other universes, also, in which she’s been different animals, including some kind of herd-society tree (?), but those universes are gone. God eventually takes the time-travel blanket (!) and goes back to our time/universe, where unspecified changes have made the internet of the future full of edifying literature instead of cute animal videos. (The Watchers, who presumably were going to destroy the universe if they didn’t get enough cute cat videos, remain unchanged, so I guess they are going to destroy this universe now?)

You can see the main issue here, which is what the hell is this play actually ABOUT? Is it about loneliness? (i.e., a woman tries to escape her own time because it doesn’t understand her, only to discover that the future doesn’t understand her any better? [this was the premise of the excellent Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time,” starring Buster Keaton, incidentally]) Then what is up with all of these watchers and cat video things? Is it about the isolation that power brings? (i.e., that God can create a universe but is still trapped by the need for external validation [also at least one great Twilight Zone episode –“The Mind and the Matter” featuring Shelley Berman – but let’s be honest, no science fictional premise doesn’t have a Twilight Zone precursor) Then what the hell is up with all the time-travelling? Is it a comment about how the internet isolates us from each other (a particularly luddite sentiment that was common in this entire festival), or how it’s uselessly filled with cat videos (considering the sorts of things that you can find on 4chan or deep into reddit, I think we’d actually all be LUCKY if icanhazcheezburger was the only thing our society created that survived us)?

Speaking of, if this is a new, parallel universe, why do they even have our internet in the first place? Why would changes to our present affect that new universe? At some point, God tells the Time Traveler that going to the future actually also changes the past because time flows in both directions, except 1) no, it clearly doesn’t, and 2) that is a huge idea to bring up and never mention ever again. “Paws” spends so much time explaining this stuff, and virtually no time at all giving us a reason to care what happens to God or the Time Traveler, that it ends up being hopelessly confused. It’s not a social commentary, it’s not an existential meditation, it’s not even a straightforward story about a person who steals a time blanket.

Speaking of the Time Blanket: this is a good point about how it’s worth it to immerse yourself in your subject matter before you try to take on a genre that maybe you don’t usually write in. The way the Time Blanket works is, you have to spray yourself with this kind of aerosol stuff, and then you go under the blanket and concentrate really hard about where you want to go, and the blanket takes you there. Now, that’s all fine, except obviously: science fiction has taught us that you pretty much never have to explain how a time machine works (since time machines DON’T work, they are actually fictional) unless that detail is going to be an arbitrary limitation about getting back to your own time (see Back to the Future, parts I, II, and III). So, why would you spend ANY TIME AT ALL talking about the aerosol component of your time blanket power, if God was going to steal the blanket and go back in time without using the aerosol to no ill effect?

Another point that seems tangential, but I think is also worth mentioning: God is played by a person in a bunny suit. At first, the Time Traveler thinks that God is a talking bunny. This is fine – I have been to the theater, I know how it works, I have absolutely ZERO problem accepting that a person in a bunny suit is actually a giant talking bunny. Later, it is revealed that God is actually a person in a bunny suit (for some reason related to the Watchers that was not clear to me).

While I don’t have a problem believing that a person in a bunny suit is actually a talking bunny, I cannot accept that a character in the play could mistake a person in a bunny suit for a talking bunny. She does not have to suspend her disbelief, how is SHE not able to tell the difference?

{sonic art} by C.J. Celeiro

A thousand years in the future, where audible communication is no longer known, two urban explorers discover a long lost relic from the past and change their destiny.

We know it’s the future in this play because everyone is wearing ragged, Mad Max style clothes. And we know that audible communication is no longer known, because the actors communicate using sign language. Eventually, one of them finds a piano, which he starts to bang on. The other actor dances to the piano music. They rediscover their voices (kind of; I mean, they don’t learn to talk, or anything, but they laugh for the first time (!), and turn out to have perfect pitch (!!!)). Then a crazy lady with a hatchet comes out and smashes the piano. The play ends, I guess.

So, let’s set aside the most obvious interpretation here, which is “Deaf people lead miserable lives scavenging in civilization’s castoffs, until they are elevated by exposure to music”; I mean, that’s what the play definitely LOOKS like, especially considering the actors’ use of kind of junky-looking sign language. But that is a pretty gross premise, and I expect it’s not what the author intended, though if it’s the case that he DIDN’T intend it, then maybe a second look at the play is warranted.
What, then, IS the point of the play? Oliver Sacks, a pretty famous neurologist, has written some very interesting things about how and why human beings create music, and a play exploring what that is like – what it might be like for a culture who had never experienced music to suddenly have access to it, if they had to build a musical tradition from the ground up, as adults – could be pretty interesting. Of course, it doesn’t make functional sense; the mechanisms for music are built into our brains at a very deep level, so the idea that you could go your entire life without appreciating or understanding music at all is as ridiculous as, for example, the idea that you could go your entire life without laughing at all. Maybe there is a reason that human beings never make any sounds at all? That they purposefully throughout their lives repress the very instinctive, noisy responses to emotional stimuli that are part of the universal human experience? That would also be an interesting play, but that question is not explored here.

Anyway, even setting aside the functional improbability of the premise – the point of science fiction is largely that it allows us to do just that – the play STILL doesn’t seem interested in exploring what it means for human beings to interact with music. When babies learn music, the first thing they react to is rhythm – why is the nameless pianist in this play first attempting to create a melody? How is he able to construct a melody when he’s spent his entire life without hearing any music to give him a frame of reference of, for instance, scales? Why does his partner start DANCING to that melody, when that is not what any human being ever dances to?

How did five people work on this show, and none of them pointed out that, no, this is not actually what the universal human experience of music is like?

But maybe the play is even simpler than that – maybe it’s about how life is terrible without art, and it is better with art. Which…well, I guess thank heaven someone has finally said it?

The plot consists mostly of what I’ve described – Thunderdome refugees rummage in refuse, find a piano, dance – and there’s a certain amount of tension early on, before it’s clear that the play is going to be about a couple of knuckleheads banging on a piano. Once it’s apparent that the stakes don’t really change, the fact that these two particular knuckleheads have nothing to recommend them as characters starts to become painfully obvious; there’s a second moment of tension when a third character appears and pulls out a hatchet – maybe someone is going to get hatcheted? It falls flat, though, when we realize that not only is there no apparent reason for this third character to hatchet anyone, but also no particular reason for us to care if anyone gets hatcheted.

I guess it’s sad that she hatchets the piano, but human beings have been constructing musical instruments out of garbage for thirty thousand years. I somehow feel like they’ll cope?

The Last Man on Earth by Kristen M. Scatton

One year after the “Mayan Apocalypse”, two unlikely survivors discover that they are not alone but now have each other.

There’s a moment in this play that suggests the whole thing is going to be pretty entertaining. There are two characters, a man and a woman (I forget their names, but their names don’t matter; let’s call them Jen and Jeff), and they are the last two people on earth. When they finally discover each other, Jen (played by Angela Smith) has such a look of resigned disappointment that you get the feeling that there might be something here.

After all, the reversal of the “Last People on Earth” premise (used to great effect, for example, in the Twilight Zone episode “Two”, featuring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery) in which the last two people are exes who still don’t actually like each other is a potentially pretty funny joke. (Imagine, for instance, a fantasy sequence on 30 Rock, in which Liz Lemon discovers that the last person left on earth is Dennis Duffy. That is a good joke!)

The problem is that it is precisely ONE joke, and while one joke is a good foundation for a two-minute sketch, it is not a strong enough foundation for anything more. Scatton has to pad the rest of the play mostly with quips and cultural references (for future reference, the best joke for REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel Fine)” – already a too-on-the-nose reference when Independence Day used it in its opening scenes – is obviously that no one actually knows all the words to it), and some pretty generic relationship stuff.

Questions that aren’t really addressed, but COULD have led to a more complex and interesting play, are things like, “how does an incompetent boob survive post-holocaust, anyway?” and “IS Jen not a vegetarian anymore? Why has she started eating meat, exactly?” (Relatedly: “Wouldn’t it be easier to eat old Twinkies than to start hunting squirrels, after spending a lifetime never hunting squirrels?”) These can be things that you explore from a practical perspective or a joke perspective; any question that you bring up in a play can be a joke, if you set your mind to it. What it CAN’T be is a quip. Jokes can explore a premise that is inherently absurd, and are funnier the more invested your characters are in them. Quips are ways for an author to let her audience know that she thinks some things are funny. They are a fine enough flourish, but that’s all they are.

Anyway, the challenge with this particular play is that these characters need to have an interesting historical relationship FIRST, that is then exacerbated by the apocalypse, and a kind of lackadaisical argument about, “You were a vegetarian but that was boring,”/ “Why don’t you respect me?” doesn’t really cut it. Instead, they spend the piece artlessly dumping exposition on each other in elaboration of a premise that ultimately leads up to probably the worst possible shaggy-dog punchline.

Which brings me to the OTHER problem: if you have a play about a woman deciding not to date a man even though he is the last man on earth, and if that play is called “The Last Man on Earth,” it is actually detrimental to have the woman ACTUALLY SAY, “I wouldn’t date you if you were the last man on earth.” This implies that you think your audience is a bunch of boneheads.

Fukushima Daiichi Toy and Novelty by J. Ferron Hiatt

On his 21st birthday, a young man on a seemingly routine doctor visit discovers the buried truth about his past.

This is the play whose premise is, “What if a man were a robot?”

Here’s the thing about that premise: “What if a man were a robot” has a pretty ferocious pedigree in the field — you’ve got like, every third Twilight Zone episode (“Steel,” “The Mighty Casey”, “Uncle Simon”, “The Lonely”, “I Sing the Body Electric”), you’ve got Isaac Asimov’s entire oeuvre, you’ve got about half of Phillip K. Dick’s work (including Blade Runner, one of the most iconic works of science fiction in the history of the genre). Those are big shoes to fill. There is a LOT that has been said on this topic, and a lot of it that has been said well and interestingly by people who are universally recognized as being pretty good at what they do.

If your premise begins with “what if a man were a robot” and then goes on to say something like “and then…[confused noise, shrug, empty hands]” then you cannot successfully consider your job done.

Now, in Hiatt’s defense there is a half an interesting idea here and, in the grand tradition of GOOD science fiction, it actually doesn’t have anything to do with robots, per se. The idea is that a character discovers that he is a robot, that his mother purchased so she could have a son, and now his expiration date has passed and she’s going to harvest his memories and shut him down. The idea of “parenthood is fundamentally selfish” – i.e., that maybe some parents want children the way they want toys or a puppy – is a pretty good, kind of wicked notion that DOES deserve some consideration; certainly more than the five or six lines Hiatt devotes to it.

But the real problem here is that this play is actually a complete mess. The setting is fitfully and inconsistently established (it’s like 1984, except everyone’s on Facebook? Also there are riots? Also there was a robot uprising and now all the robots live in Fukushima?) ,the characters are brief sketches (the Doctor appears so without warning or ceremony that it’s several minutes into the play before we understand that he’s even a part of it, as opposed to an actor from a different play who maybe just came on too early), there’s no sense of stakes or progression of plot. Except for three-quarters of the way through, when the Doctor mentions an “expiration date” (shamelessly pilfered from the aforementioned Blade Runner), it is not clear at ALL what is supposed to be happening to Guy Who is Actually a Robot. This is to say nothing of the riots that don’t matter, the surveillance robots that don’t matter, the half-formed Orwell joke that doesn’t go anywhere (or matter) – there is a certain thrill to be found as Hiatt just starts tossing in apparently every science fictional trope he can think of, but in the end they neither illuminate character nor idea, and really just come out as a kind of gloppy tangle.

The thing that makes a question like “what if a man were a robot” interesting is not the discovery that he is a robot, it’s the loss of his understanding of self; it’s a subtle but key distinction that demands that we first understand who the character IS, and who he thinks he is, otherwise that loss is meaningless to us. Twenty minutes of a man realizing he is a robot is an order of magnitude less interesting than fifteen minutes of a man’s life and five minutes of him realizing that he’s a robot.

This is all to say nothing of the basic tastelessness of co-opting a genuine human tragedy (the Fukushima Daichi earthquake killed 25,000 people) as a junky, utterly irrelevant joke in your one-act. It’s hard to be completely sure (largely because nothing that isn’t specifically declared by the actors to be happening RIGHT NOW is especially comprehensible), but the fact that the robot factory is in Fukushima Daichi has absolutely nothing to do with anything, which makes the choice both bizarre and grotesque.

Mediation by V.F. Zialcita

In a cave miles below the earth’s surface, a husband and wife rehash the past.

I do not know why Luna artistic director Gregory Scott Campbell decided to put the only two vaguely interesting plays at the very end of the TWO HOUR event. That’s how it is, though.

“Mediation” is still hampered by the same problems that plagued the other plays: namely, it’s not clear what the plot is (if there is a plot at all) and there are no characters to speak of, and it spends most of its time elliptically referring to its own premise. It does have two things going for it: the first is that it’s short (that sounds glib, but the ability to not overstay its welcome is an unfortunately rare characteristic in a one-act [I AM LOOKING AT YOU, DAVID IVES]), the second is that there’s something intriguing about what’s going on.

The explanation of the play above doesn’t actually jive with it. There’s nothing to indicate that they’re in a cave, it’s not clear that they’re husband and wife. What happens is, a woman and a man seem to have their thoughts, or feelings played out by two other actors, while a scientist watches. Or, if not their feelings, maybe these are scenarios that are meant to resolve some outstanding issue between them? We don’t know if the actors are robots or virtual avatars, we only get the sense that they’re connected to the man and woman; the man eventually also turns out to be some kind of simulacrum.
The thing is, the twin ideas of, “What if emotional relationships could be played out by secondary actors, in ordinary-seeming scenes that were inexplicably fraught” and “what happens if we have human beings act out things as though they are in a videogame” are both interesting and kind of rare (that latter was explored to some interesting effect in David Cronenberg’s criminally under-rated Existenz).

“Mediation” is short enough, and the premise tantalizing enough, that you can get through the whole thing without realizing that there isn’t any real there, there; just some vague gesturing at an idea that never comes to any real fruition.

The Big Crunch by Joy Cutler

In a world of medical implants, door-to-door organ transplants, water scarcity and disappearing neighbors, a nuclear family does their best to survive.

As is the case with “Mediation”, “The Big Crunch” isn’t really well-served by its little description (interestingly, this is a generally very good guideline for interesting science fiction: the more easily you can sum it up with a couple sentences, the less likely it is to be worth your while), and it actually has kind of the opposite problem of all of the other plays in this festival: it’s got well-drawn characters, who are clearly up to something, and it’s got some kind of consistent premise – it’s just that Cutler doesn’t really ever spend any time telling us what it is.

I actually want to go into this one a little more, because Cutler does a couple of interesting things very well. She’s got a knack for what you might call “farcical body-horror” – the kind of weird stuff that’s absurd and kind of silly on the face of it, but starts to become creepy and unsettling as the show goes on (the son, has had his penis replaced with a flower, that he apparently cannot use to sexual satisfaction; his sister is in some kind of coma that allows other characters to constantly pose her). That’s a tricky line to walk, and Cutler is very good at it.

The setting is also very nicely, obliquely illumined – we get hints of a world with weird diseases that make people stupid, children grown in vats, maybe people are getting hung up in meat lockers somewhere? The girls scouts deliver human organs. They’re weird ideas, but they all seem to hint at a throughline that is reminiscent of a kind of gooey, biological version of the out-of-joint world in Marisol. It’s about the only setting provided that made me want to see more of it, and the only one that seemed genuinely original.

The problem with “Crunch” is that it lacks focus; the world and characters are well-rendered, but it’s not clear to what point they’ve been rendered, and while there’s the strong suggestion that they’re here to illustrate something, whatever that something is never materializes.

I would argue that this play doesn’t really belong in this festival at all; what it really needs is to be extracted, edited, reconsidered, and made into its own full-length piece. There are tangents that could probably be pared away (the advent of an approaching asteroid, which I assume gives the piece its title, actually seems like a sort of pointless non sequitur, as does the fact that the family’s water has been “terrorized” and is now explosive).

“Crunch” needs a sharper focus on its setting (it’s a common misconception that the setting of a science fiction story is largely window-dressing; the best settings are constructed as a kind of leitmotif exploration of the story itself. Each element is brought into being to serve an essential purpose, but that’s not possible if the essential purpose is too muddy), which would help it curtail its meandering character, and probably give it a little more material plotwise.

Conclusion

I know probably no one wants to hear this kind of stuff from me, but the fact of the matter is, I’m kind of really bothered by this whole festival. I don’t feel like it really got the consideration that it deserved, neither that it was curated with a genuine interest in the material, nor that the authors got the necessary feedback they needed to polish their plays. The whole thing, frankly, feels careless, and that seems to me to be pretty disrespectful.

It’s disrespectful to the genre that it evokes, when authors just step in and ignore a hundred and fifty years of history; it’s disrespectful to the actors who worked on it, to expect them to bring their talent and enthusiasm to pieces that were not created with that same commitment; and it’s disrespectful to the audience, to presume that our time is of so little value that it’s reasonable for us to spend it watching plays that even the authors don’t seem particularly interested in.

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