Theatre is an amazing artform, but one of the things it does less well is genre storytelling. Drama, comedy, musicals – absolutely. Even fantasy or thrillers. But horror, action, westerns – not so much.
This leads us to science fiction. I’ve seen a small selection of sci-fi theatre productions during the past quarter century, and while the quality may have varied from show to show, I couldn’t say that any of them really clicked or pulled together in a satisfying way. I’m not entirely certain why that is. The current production by the Echo Theater Company, D. G. Watson’s Ascension, although smart, technically innovative and sharply acted, is unfortunately another example of this conundrum, working better as an intriguing theatrical experiment than as a traditional play.
As the story begins, Rebel (Charrell Mack) awakes in a translucent blue tube, uncertain why’s she there or how to escape. Weirdly, however, she can see us, the audience, and communicate with us. The scene changes to focus on scientist Monica (Karen Sours Albisua), who has invented a technological breakthrough. Wealthy businessman Raithmore (Steve Hofvendahl) contacts her to discuss acquiring her creation, but the strange fits Monica keeps having begin to make it clear that everything in this scenario is not as it appears.
Mack delivers an enjoyable performance despite the difficulty of portraying a role that is opaque by design. She’s very adept and comfortable with her extensive audience interaction, which helps the production considerably. Albisua is very good at presenting the complicated Monica, creating a three-dimensional character while also doing most of the show’s expositional heavy lifting. Leandro Cano is darkly amusing as the mysterious Caretaker, and Hofvendahl is terrific as the manipulative Raithmore, with a performance that expertly combines humor, empathy and menace.
Director Ahmed Best skillfully balances the performances and dramatic needs of the production with its technical challenges, although the video element seems a bit less effective. The show requires a good amount of audience interaction, and some of this is accomplished in clever ways I haven’t seen utilized in a theatrical show before, which is fun. Watson’s play, however, while interesting and creative, isn’t especially compelling on an emotional level. It isn’t really a message piece, either, which made me wonder what the ultimate point of it was.
I enjoyed Ascension, and there are many good things about it, but as a piece of theatre it seemed a bit less than the sum of its parts.
Ascension, presented by Echo Theater Company, plays at the Atwater Village Theatre through November 18th. Tickets are available here, at www.EchoTheaterCompany.com