At a space called The Secret Theatre in New York City, a nightly battle for our survival is playing out. Earth has been colonized by giant insectoid-like aliens with a psychic hivemind, a penchant for forced collective farming, and no love for the nuclear family. Everything that we hold familiar has gone to future-dystopic hell in "Blast Radius," a new play by Mac Rogers that is both pitch-perfect science fiction about an alien occupation and a wrenching treatise on the state of humanity, no matter the state we're in.
Photos by Deborah Alexander.
"Blast Radius" is the second installment of Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy, but you needn't have seen the first, "Advance Man," to be plunged right in. Set 17 years after well-intentioned but misguided astronauts brought alien larvae back from a Martian mission with an aim to see the races peacefully coexist, our buggy overlords have crushed dissent and outlawed books, modern medicine, and monogamy, creating a sort of pre-industrial agrarian culture that oppresses the technological innovations of the past.
It's not out of spite, exactly: in their way, the bugs just want humans to lead lives like they do, organic and unbound, with no concept of selfish individuality, no artificial enhancements, no secrets and lies between them in their telepathic network of multitudes. The problem, of course, is that humans don't work that way, and these humans still remember Before.
The story centers around Ronnie (Becky Byers) and Abbie (David Rosenblatt), the children of the first play's commanding astronaut who have taken very different sides in the conflict. Hard-bitten, hard-driven Ronnie is ready to lead a revolution, while her once-beloved sensitive brother is now estranged, an ambassador to the aliens and their most enthusiastic fan, persuaded that the bugs' way is the future. As the action unspools on a single set, a sort of post-apocalyptic-styed living room, the family drama is unerringly the story's catalyst, surpassing the building threat of additional doomsdays.
With the remnants of human society segmented into work-camps overseen by human collaborators, there are still pockets of people who remain resistant to the new status quo, gathering in the houses where women give birth (a space that remains both sacred and profane to bugs and men). But true resistance is all talk until things start blowing up – and neither side knows why. Overarching science fiction themes provide its backdrop, but "Blast Radius" is also a fast-paced mystery, anyone's guessing game as to where the twisty, gutsy plot will go next.
Rogers is obviously well-steeped in genre (he's won awards for the plays Hail Satan, Viral, and Universal Robots), and creates a vocabulary for his future that science fiction fans will recognize: there are reapers, flyers, raiders, runners and skins, and most crucially the massive Honeycombs where the aliens live, but the jargon is never thick; attendees who don't normally go in for the speculative will still be riveted. He handles a cast of twelve with ease, making every character memorable and giving each their share of his natural ear for dialogue. If they are sometimes given to profound speechifying on the state of human nature, we almost always deserve it. Director Jordana Williams, Rogers' frequent collaborator, brings the characters to onstage life with poignant immediacy, and the talented cast dives in headfirst.
Women dominate "Blast Radius," as they are somewhat untouchable when pregnant. Even when not, they are the deciders. Poised, no-nonsense midwife Shirley (Nancy Siriani) rules the roost over her birthing house, which happens to be the childhood home of Ronnie and Abbie, repossessed by bugs. Also "carrying" there are Ronnie's feisty friend Fee (Felicia Hudson), shrewd frenemy Clem (Alisha Spielmann), and mysterious blast-victim Willa (Cotton Wright). The siblings' ailing mother, Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), has a room in the house due to Abbie's benevolence, while the agonized Tash (Amy Lee Pearsall) exemplifies the dangers of giving birth without the aid of modern advances.
Although they would surely be repulsed by the thought, the human resistance has taken a shape to echo the bugs' own structure: perpetually pregnant steely women call the shots, while the menfolk, reduced to lives of drone-like farm labor, often appear outwitted. Each lady has a "man," as they are often referred to. Despite the official proscriptions on monogamy, it seems to have found a way, even if "everyone has babies with everyone." Ronnie's stalwart partner Peck (Adam Swiderski) is the one reliable hunk of heroic man-flesh, while hapless Dev (Seth Shelden) thinks maybe life isn't all so bad if they keep their heads down and goofy Jimmy (Joe Mathers) seeks distraction in the one pain-killing, mind-altering herbal drug left and mindless sex.
Babies, once weaned, are taken off collective nurseries, which nods to narratives like Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed and Lois Lowry's The Giver (people were once engaged in secretive "memory duty," hiding precious relics of the past like medicine, paper and crayons for preservation). The buggy commune pays tribute to Starship Troopers and Ender's Game and everything between, but the world is well-built and feels fresh.
The eloquent heart of the play is wonderfully the most alien. Jason Howard's Conor was an astronaut in "Advance Man" whose consciousness was taken over by a bug that then became trapped there, severed forever from his psychic flock. Conor's friends patiently taught a creature they thought to be shell-shocked how to be human again, inadvertently handing over the keys to their culture.
Now Conor is a "skin," an alien in a human body, with the unique perspective of having experienced the advantages and disadvantages of both lifeforms. His observations are the most philosophically rich, coming from a place of naivete: the newness of being human, and all its attendant emotional agonies and ecstasies. Like many in "Blast Radius," Conor is very much in love, and that deeply selfish and selfless connection drives him more than loyalty to any other cause.
While the rest are also motivated by romantic and familial ties, they are equally compelled by hatred – one could say blind – of their oppressors. The ambiguity of the scenario is a primary strength of the plot: the aliens aren't all bad, and are the ones interested in a lasting, if extreme peace. It's unclear if any one way of life is really better or worse. And the intimate civil war at the core propels everyone toward a nail-biting end, as the machinations of Ronnie and Abbie become a sister-against-brother race to destroy the other's world. All of this sets the stage for the trilogy's conclusion, "Sovereign," which will debut June 14th, which is not soon enough.
With his large cast of differentiated characters and starkly-drawn battle-lines, Rogers has imagined the full spectrum of reaction to a cataclysmic foreign takeover and its aftermath. Some want to fight the enemy, some seek mutually beneficial collaboration, others want to join up in service, but all remain consumed with the inescapable concerns that make us human: love, hate, sex, sexuality, sacrifice, sickness, death, reproduction, family. Equally relevant now as ever are motifs of terrorism and freedom fighting and the overlaps between the two. "Blast Radius" is a much-needed mirror on our own world, built on an alien honeycomb. By the end a good deal of the audience alternates between gasping and crying, yours truly included. Twice.
The play's arrival is timely: speculative dystopias are having quite a moment. Narratives inspired by the threat or after-effects of apocalyptic chaos are topping box office and best-seller lists, playing out on TV, receiving ever more graphic ink. "Blast Radius" demonstrates that the stage is also a perfect medium on which to tell our old/new stories of oppression, destruction, and defiant resilience, and could teach Hollywood a thing or two about how to do it right.
"Blast Radius," presented by Gideon Productions and The BFG Collective, runs at The Secret Theatre (44-02 23rd Street, Queens, NY, www.secrettheatre.com), Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m through April 14th; tickets are $18/$15 for students and seniors. An additional show has been added due to demand Sunday, April 15th at 2pm. "Sovereign" bows June 14th.