Storefront’s ‘Pilgrims’ carrying some heavy baggage across the stars

By John Lyle Belden

In the future, a ship’s cabin still looks like a comfortable hotel room, it’s just that the ship is sailing through space. A man enters, eyeing the layout and smoothing the bed like one conditioned by military service. Everything is in order for the long journey. Suddenly, an annoyingly perky teen girl bursts in and makes herself at home. Something is amiss here.

“Pilgrims,” the drama by Claire Kiechel, directed by Chelsea Anderson on the new Broad Ripple stage of Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is in the tradition of the best science-fiction stories, using a distant fantasy situation to probe questions about our present humanity.

Aboard the aptly named starliner, “Destiny,” Ryan Ruckman portrays a soldier returning as a migrant to the planet where he once fought its natives. Struggling with PTSD, he is haunted by what happened there, but feels compelled to return. Ruckman often gets cast in this kind of rugged role, so is a natural fit, and has honed the skill of showing the human under the he-man facade.

Kelsey Leigh Miller, as the teen roommate, puts her inner child on full display to excellent effect, then lets the girl’s more mature aspects creep in as their journey continues. We easily see her as whatever she presents herself to be at every moment.

Our other character is Jasmine, a 2600B model AI android and the cabin’s personal valet. She appears when called upon to dispense food or supplies — but not much in the way of news, except to say that a quarantine remains in effect, keeping our two humans in close quarters for possibly the entire three-month voyage. Carrie Schlatter is excellent in this difficult role, managing speech that is artificially friendly without robotic cliché flatness, and economy of movement that reflects someone who is programmed rather than engaging in natural human action.

We are along for the long ride, as the play is a single movie-length act. Numerous scenes and little revelations track the passing of time, as the couple’s interactions – and perhaps something else – slowly change them, drawing them closer in unexpected yet inevitable ways.

Apparently among the beings of the “new world” (which the girl naively calls “aliens”) there is no word for the concept of “regret;” yet that is the biggest thing our Pilgrims bring with them. See how they unpack it in the play’s remaining weekend, Thursday through Sunday evenings (Sept. 19-22) at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

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IndyFringe: The Last Man

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

This sci-fi drama starts out strong, taking us down a path of eerie possibilities. 

Colin (Craig Kemp) runs into The Party Shop at a local mall, where the cheerful clerk, Delta (Caity Withers) hardly notices that his clothes are torn and he is stained with blood and grime. He insists on having some of the water and snacks from the shop, but, “Sorry sir, that’s for customers, only,” she smiles. So he says he wants to plan a party, Christmas in August, and he tells her a story of advances in Artificial Intelligence and Nanotechnology. And how in the 22nd century, out of nostalgia people built shopping malls that echoed the 20th century. And how there were AI “people” that were so convincing, not even they could recognize they weren’t human.

“That’s silly,” Delta says with a perfectly happy and helpful face.

Back in the 21st century, Erica (Alfton Shepard), a Professor of Advanced Nanotechnology, has recruited a couple of promising students, Charlie (Claire Shutters) and Bill (Manny Casillas) to help her with her next breakthrough. First, she is in need of emergency heart-valve surgery, and Dr. Toowan (Steve Jerk) assures her that the odds of failure are extremely low — but a phone message from the future is insisting she not go through with it, and that the fate of the world is at stake!

Local doctor and author L. Jan Eira panned this little thriller, which features some tech that is only a couple of breakthroughs away, and even temporal tinkering that acknowledges “time travel” has its limits. Hardcore sci-fi fans may recognize the plot beats, but it is kinda fun to play “spot the replicant.”

The acting is great, but this script really needed two full acts to explore its potential. The dynamite opening scene is followed by some good ones; then a rushed climax to a chunk of closing exposition. But it’s an interesting story nonetheless. Don’t let its weakness stop you; Fringe tickets are inexpensive, and you can say you saw it first when this story gets a bigger, better treatment — later in the 21st century.

Performances are today and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 21-22 & 24-25), by the Indiana Firefighters Museum at 748 Massachusetts Ave.

At the District: Travel from Waukegan to Mars on a bicycle

By John Lyle Belden

When one has access to an age-altering carousel, why let a little thing like death stop you? After all, Mr. Electrico told him he would “Live forever!”

To understand what I mean by this, see the Midwest premiere of “Ray Bradbury Live (Forever)” at The District Theater, presented by IndyFringe – in just two more performances, today and tomorrow (May 4-5), before continuing its national tour.

Bradbury wheels onto the stage, played by lifelong fan and Emmy-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. He then removes a tarp from a lecture stand, places it on his bicycle, and proceeds to talk to us about his life, career and feelings on topics such as writing and the importance of libraries. We get a glimpse of his growing up in Waukegan, Ill. (“it’s not ugly to a child”), and Los Angeles (near Hollywood, which he often visited). We even meet his charming wife, Maggie (played locally by Jenni White).

The “science fiction writer who never drove a car” also engages us with mesmerizing dramatic excerpts from “A Sound of Thunder” (from whence we get the term “butterfly effect”), “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Martian Chronicles.” Oberst’s skill makes Bradbury’s words come alive, helping us feel the greatness imbedded in these stories, and what they say about being human and the human desire to mess with forces they barely understand.

In fact, Oberst crafted the entire show from the words of Ray Bradbury — from his texts, to letters and interviews. The script was vetted by the Ray Bradbury Estate, as well as Dr. Jonathan Eller, Director of IUPUI’s Center For Ray Bradbury Studies, who attended the opening performance. We hear such nuggets as, “I don’t predict the future, I try to prevent it;” “I write fantasy because I believe in fantasy;” and from a poem: “Give book, Give smile.”

Oberst said after the show that he tried for years to get friends who more resembled Bradbury to portray him on stage before finally deciding to take on the role himself. Wearing a comfortable suit, appropriate hairstyle, trademark black-frame glasses, and a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, he does just fine. Behind the sparse stage is a large screen that shows facts and trivia about Bradbury prior to the show (come early, none of the slides repeat), and supporting scenes and illustrations during the performance. Note there are some strobe-effects during the telling of “Sound of Thunder.”

This excellent premiere – first performances since opening in Los Angeles – came about in part with the help of IndyFringe CEO Pauline Moffatt, who said she saw Oberst in a previous Fringe and encouraged him to return, aided by the perfect synergy with the Bradbury Center here in Indianapolis.

For devoted fans, casual fans, or anyone interested in discovering this American literary master, you have two more chances in Indy: 8 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday at The District (former location of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave. downtown. Call 317-308-9800 or visit IndyDistrictTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

For those who can’t make it, or are reading this on or after May 6, find info and future performances at raybradburyliveforever.com.

Review: Online life taken to disturbing depths

By John Lyle Belden

In the near-future, the Internet evolves into the Nether, where people log on immersively to work, go to school and be entertained. Some never leave. This world is explored in a disturbing new drama, “The Nether,” playing through Nov. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indianapolis.

A detective (Sarah McGee) investigates “Papa” (Bill Simmons), who has developed, within the Nether, the Hideaway, where residents can indulge the most depraved of urges – but if it’s virtual and all participants are adults, what’s the harm? When desires that are dangerous in the real world are fulfilled to your five senses, even if no one is physically hurt, does it still chip away at something within you?

Deep, uneasy questions are explored, confronting the dark possibilities of our online culture. Sure, in the bright and happy musical “Avenue Q” we sing that “The Internet is for Porn,” but when Papa says it in a firm voice of affirmation, it no longer seems so amusing.

The impressive set splits the stage between the cold sterile interrogation room and a beautiful Victorian parlor within the Hideaway. The lush virtual world is in contrast to the ruined outside world hinted at in conversation — with references to an environment with few trees and little natural beauty remaining — a world it would make sense one would want to escape, maybe even permanently.

Rich Rand plays a Hideaway user, and Paeton Chavis and Scot Greenwell portray Nether avatars; they, Simmons and McGee all give compelling performances. Unless easily offended or triggered, mature audiences should welcome the challenge of this play. Info and tickets at 317-635-7529 or phoenixtheatre.org.

Pop goes the weekend

Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama on the 2004-09 version of
Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama on the 2004-09 version of “Battlestar Galactica.” Meme from some joker on the internet, photo from NBC/Universal

All the geeky aspects of pop culture go on display at Indy PopCon, Friday through Sunday at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis. This critical mass of gaming, internet culture, comics, costumes, TV, movies, anime, fantasy and sci-fi features celebrity guests including Edward James Olmos (“Battlestar Galactica”), Sam Jones (“Flash Gordon”), John DeLancie (“Star Trek”), Malcolm Goodwin (“iZombie”), Sophie Henderson (“Doctor Who”), “Face Off” winner Rashaad Santiago and former WWE star Chris Masters.

This is neither the only big thing downtown nor the only convention in town. A few blocks away, at Military Park, just north of the Eiteljorg Museum, is the Eiteljorg’s annual Indian Market and Festival, celebrating Native American art and culture 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is also a more expensive pre-party on Friday, see website for details.

As for the other con, out at the Wyndham Indianapolis West, horror extravaganza Days of the Dead returns with appearances by Tobin Bell of the “Saw” movie series, wrestling legend Rick Flair, “Phantasm” star Angus Scrimm, “Tales From the Crypt”s John Kassir, the now-grown-up twins from “The Shining,” and legendary hosts Joe Bob Briggs and Indy’s own Sammy Terry – as well as numerous other slasher and suspense stars, makeup effects artists and more.

As for fresh theatre, there is a lot of buzz around the premiere of Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre‘s “La Caza Azul,” based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo. It will be on stage just this weekend, Friday through Sunday at the Tarkington theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Looking ahead, we must note that, in addition to next week featuring the Fourth of July (and the arrival of the Rolling Stones at IMS – are the Brits upstaging our holiday?) there will also be another home-grown sci-fi convention, the 35th InConJunction July 3-5 at the Indianapolis Marriott East – where John&Wendy are among the convention volunteers.

– Go have some fun!