Mac Rogers’ sci-fi epic about alien terraforming takes over the Gym at Judson.
Photos by Deborah Alexander
Two years after the completion of the first manned mission to Mars, Bill Cooke's family is in trouble. He is out of the house so much his wife Amelia suspects him of having an affair, his daughter Ronnie beat up a boy at school who was bullying her younger brother Abbie and everyone is treading on eggshells around Conor, Bill's fellow astronaut who after a severe stroke on Mars struggles with any changes to his environment and a vocabulary of about twenty words. But the key to it all lies in "The Honeycomb," the comic Abbie is drawing about a race of bug-like aliens that are far more than they seem.
A science fiction trilogy about an alien invasion is hardly an expected topic for live theater, and yet Mac Roger tackles the challenge head-on with The Honeycomb Trilogy. The series of plays, directed by Jordana Williams, span a timeline of twenty years and are being performed in repertory at the Gym at Judson Memorial Church. While we were unable to cover the entire epic saga which is being marathoned on weekends for dedicated audiences, the first installment, Advance Man, is more than enough to catch the attention of the casual viewer.
A question that modern playwrights often have to ask themselves is, why does this story have to be performed as theater? What can I get across in this medium that would not be better served by prose or by film? Nowhere is this more true than in genre stories such as science fiction, where the limitations of live theater preclude the sorts of special effects we typically associate with futuristic landscapes and alien interactions.
In short, Advance Man is all about anticipation. Covering all of the events leading up to the actual presence of an alien species on Earth, what we can imagine is so much worse than what we can actually see. Rogers' play in particular toys with this energy in two ways: Abbie's drawings of what he imagines the Honeycomb to be that the audience just barely catches glimpses of, and the character of Conor, who despite being trapped in the body of a disabled astronaut is far more than human.
Though dogged by the slow pacing that is all too common for the first piece of a trilogy, the true tension of Advance Man comes from trying to piece together what exactly the former astronauts' plan really is. Limited by a single unchanging set of the Cooke family living room, domesticity and familial relationships infuse every aspect of the piece, from the brotherhood of a group of people who went to Mars together to regaining trust in a marriage when so much of Bill's day-to-day life is classified information. In such an environment, elements like the astronauts' subtle brainwashing by both NASA and the Honeycomb become even more fascinating.
With little else to fall back on, the acting in the play proves crucial to sell the premise and the underlying terror of an alien invasion. Sean Williams gives a strong, nuanced performance as the subtly charismatic Bill who manages to bend everyone to his will even with the unlikeliest of plans. Becky Byers and David Rosenblatt soar in their depiction of the relationship between siblings Ronnie and Abbie, making the teenagers powerful characters in their own right rather than simply plot devices in an adult drama. And of course, Jason Howard does a magnificent job with extraterrestrial stroke victim Conor, and playwright Mac Rogers should be commended for the bravery to place severe mental disability at the forefront of his play.
Other characters do not receive the same degree of attention; the motivations of the rest of the former NASA team are not explored to nearly the same depth, and the private investigator's role in everything that happens remains unclear. Still, science fiction theater is a relatively new form usually performed at least somewhat ironically, so the fact that this cast manages to pull everything off with the seriousness Rogers intended is a triumph for playwright and production alike. Maybe the latter two plays in the trilogy, Blast Radius and Sovereign, have more of the traditional action sequences and excitement audience may expect from such a story as this, but Advance Man certainly creates enough intrigue to bring us back for more.
The Honeycomb Trilogy plays at the Gym at Judson through November 14.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.