I have been dragging my feet on putting together this Pre-Game for Gideon Productions’ Asymmetric before my proper review posts in the next few days. There are a number of things contributing to this – two other reviews already in the queue for the site, a bigger project that I’ve been working on for Pop Matters about Joss Whedon, and also the wonderful and frenetic pace of domestic life with two small kids and a full-time job. What can I say? I’m outgunned.
From Gideon producer Sean Williams’ insightful article on the Brooklyn Rail, I learned that the term “asymmetric” in the new show’s title refers to “asymmetric warfare,” when the military power of the two opposing parties differs significantly. That’s a hell of a thing to title a show about relationships and espionage. One of the things I appreciate so much about Gideon is that their work is truly illuminated by a refined focus. Much like I did with the Debate Society’s plays a few weeks back, I will attempt to zero in on one aspect of Gideon’s work that I think makes the premise of Asymmetric sound particularly interesting.
For the record, the core of Gideon is made up of playwright Mac Rogers, director Jordana Williams, producer/performer Sean Williams, and scenic designer Sandy Yaklin. In truth much of what I will be talking about can ultimately be attributed back to Rogers’ plays, but I hope to make the point that Gideon’s overall success exists because of the concerted effort. As deeply as I value writers like Rogers, a 70-page printed play script lying on the floor of an empty stage will likely only hold an audience’s attention for a few minutes of post-modern appreciation. Even the most brilliantly written plays need producers, directors, performers, and designers to actually happen. I also wanted to do the roll call here to highlight a detail that is related to what I want to talk about: they are all married. Well, not all of them to each other, obviously, but Sean and Jordana Williams are married and Mac Rogers and Sandy Yaklin are married.
I do not really know any of these people in a personal way beyond our casual social media interactions, but I think it’s interesting to note because Gideon has always excelled at portraying romantic relationships. Asymmetric, which has been produced in collaboration with Ground Up Productions and is playing at 59E59, seems to be about marriage in a big way. According to the press notes, the play is an spy thriller, where a former CIA guy who has fallen on hard times after his divorce must come out of retirement to extract information from another agent: his ex-wife. It seems the play will look at relationships through the lens of espionage and vice versa. It’s a simple concept, but totally typical of Gideon and their proven mastery at homing in on the human element within a far-reaching or fantastical story. For this reason, I’ve decided to look back at some of the romantic relationships in past Gideon plays and how they were used to inform – or else were informed by – the central conceit of the play.
Jill and Terry in Ligature Marks
I don’t know if I think of Jill and Terry in Ligature Marks as the seminal Gideon relationship because so much of the paired-down production hinged on their interactions or simply because it is the most recent in my memory – I saw it in July of 2013 as part of the Brick’s Game Play festival. Either way, I could have watched another couple of hours of these two. Terry is an antisocial gamer recently out of prison for a white collar crime; Jill has been dutifully waiting for him. He only agrees to move back in with her if she will increase her wireless connection speed so he can keep playing his favorite MMO, “Noir.” As played by Rogers himself and Gideon regular Rebecca Comtois, Terry and Jill epitomize the idea of bad relationship that refuses to end. Terry uses Jill and in non-physical ways is terribly abusive to her, but there is an honesty to his meanness that is almost respectful. “At a certain point, you should just know who I am,” he says to her. It’s one of my favorite lines in a play ever; perfectly summing up of the emotional core of this particular play but with a kind of universally applicable sweep. I have literally repurposed that line when talking to my own wife in real life, albeit in far less dire circumstances. Everybody in every relationship ever, at a certain point, should just know who their lover is.
Asymmetric seems interested in using the language of espionage to talk about marriage. I don’t want to get too deep into the byzantine details for a retrospective (you can read my spoilerific review of the Game Play production here), but what makes Ligature Marks so compelling is the way it uses a video game vernacular to reframe those hours-long state of the union discussions we’ve all had as part of long-term relationships. In these interminable talks, couples often explore hypotheticals (what would we do if we broke up?) and the full range of emotions and reactions. Why not use the simple operating parameters of a video game to make those hypotheticals play out in a more exciting was onstage? This was the Gideon play where I most appreciated Jordana Williams’ directing, simply because the play so smoothly transitioned between a fairly grounded realism into a kind of heightened video game noir.
Sophie and Marisol in Frankenstein Upstairs
Couples in plays by Rogers and Gideon are often co-workers or at least collaborators on some enterprise. (In Ligature Marks Terry and Jill take it as far as planning his murder of her together.) Both are true for Sophie and Marisol in Frankenstein Upstairs, who are the co-owners of a social media marketing company and end up the unwilling participants in their bizarre neighbor’s corpse reanimation experiments. In Frankenstein Upstairs, Rogers makes an interesting point about the way a relationship can be invaded and derailed by a third party or project – sure, in this case it is a science fiction scientist named Victoria Frankenstein, but this is something real that I’ve seen happen to friends before.
The strength of Sophie and Marisol’s relationship, so convincingly embodied by performers Autumn Dornfeld and Diana Oh, is the way it endures throughout a lot of weird and truly disturbing stuff. We know from the beginning of the play that their company is on rocky ground and that Marisol has some dark spots in her past, both of which make the tightly wound Sophie very nervous. Soon one of them is dead and ultimately reanimated by the weird Swiss lady from upstairs, leaving the other to wonder how much of her lover has actually been brought back. Only now, Frankenstein, who must maintain and monitor the reanimation process, has become an integral part of their lives. Ultimately Sophie and Marisol become pawns for their neighbor’s larger misguided scheme and, near the very end, the victims of a uniquely chilling sexual assault by Frankenstein.
And yet the events of the last act are propelled by a sense that Sophie and Marisol are in this together – even though their relationship was somewhat in question near the beginning, their experience with Frankenstein galvanizes these women, proving that they are fully partners in every way.
Abbie and Conor in Blast Radius
Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy is an immense masterpiece of geek theater and something that worked so well at the Secret Theater back in 2012 largely because of the full buy-in of the super game Gideon production team. Amongst the three plays and mobs of characters that make up this alien invasion opus, there must be a least a half dozen romantic relationships. For these purposes I want to focus on the two that really popped in a way that felt like they were there for something more than simple plot advancement or to help motivate the main characters.
The second Honeycomb play, Blast Radius, catches up with brother and sister Abbie and Ronnie Cooke, who are on opposing sides of a harsh invasion by the insectoid Honeycomb aliens. Ronnie, along with the rest of humanity, has been reduced to basically a work force by the telepathic Honeycomb. Abbie is serves as one of the human envoys to the Honeycomb. As Ronnie plans her revolution, Abbie frequently stops by what was once their family home in Florida to antagonize her. (Sandy Yaklin’s immense scenic design is a master class in how a location, like the living room in question, can be used to communicate changes in status and period as it transforms over the course of the three plays.) He brings his lover, Conor, along with him. Conor is an old astronaut friend of Abbie and Ronnie’s father Bill, whose mind was overwritten by a Honeycomb emissary in an early encounter with the aliens. In the first play, Advance Man, Conor comes off like someone suffering from brain damage who has been taken into the Cooke family’s care. We see the limited Conor and the shy teenage Abbie bond in the first play. At one point in Advance Man Ronnie says to Abbie about Conor that it is weird that he is like Abbie’s pet, always hanging around.
By the time we get to the second play, Conor – or the alien intelligence that has overwritten Conor’s mind, rather – has become more sophisticated. He is able to speak, love, and read tattered old copies of romance novels. Though the Honeycomb hopes to one day supplant all human intelligence via a similar process that placed him in a human body, Conor has fallen in love human intelligence in general and Abbie in particular. Abbie, who never connected with humans and only found romantic satisfaction with an alien, welcomes a Honeycomb takeover of human consciousness, even his own. Jason Howard, who played Conor, and David Rosenblatt, who played Abbie, capably encapsulated this remarkable and contradictory relationship built on tenderness and beliefs that are completely at odds. Again, they are technically coworkers, speaking to humanity on behalf of the aliens, but their fundamental beliefs as to why they are doing that couldn’t be farther apart. Conor eventually sacrifices himself to prevent the Honeycomb’s mental takeover of humanity because it would obliterate Abbie’s mind.
I’ll echo my point from earlier – a relationship with this kind of irreconcilable disagreement at its core feels true because this is a thing that happens in real relationships. Whether it’s about politics or religion or telepathic bug aliens, people find ways to love each other around the corners of the big ideologies that stand between them. It is a hallmark of Rogers’ ability as a writer that he gave such a rich and complicated relationship to the nominal villains of his story. Let’s suppose for a moment that Rogers had just written up a rough concept for The Honeycomb Trilogy and then lost interest and walked away. If some other playwright had picked up that outline and tried to write these plays, they probably wouldn’t have put Conor and Abbie in a relationship. And on the off chance that someone else did put them together, you can be damn sure they wouldn’t have taken the care to set them at odds with each other over the mission of the Honeycomb. That kind of emotional truth in the midst of wild fantasy is something only Rogers and Gideon can do.
Amelia and Bill in Advance Man
Advance Man, the first part of The Honeycomb Trilogy, is a much more conventional domestic drama than the later heavily scifi installments of the series. It focuses on Ronnie and Abbie’s home life when they were teenagers, years before the Honeycomb invasion. Their father, Bill, led the crew who carried out the first manned voyage to Mars and returned to Earth with a mysterious mission. It turns out that Bill and his old Mars crew are helping to terraform the Earth in preparation for the Honeycomb’s arrival; they were convinced of the Honeycomb’s benevolence by a dying member of that insectoid race who had crash landed on Mars. The majority of the play, however, focuses on Bill and Amelia’s marital troubles, as well as issues with their kids. To Bill’s wife, Amelia, all of his sneaking around and secrecy looks like he is having an affair.
In much the same way Conor and Abbie’s relationship in Blast Radius exists in spite of conflicting ideals, Bill and Amelia’s relationship exists in spite of his secrets. Gideon producer Sean Williams was simply terrific when he played Bill in the Secret Theater production, as was Kristen Vaughn as Amelia – her performances as the deeply emotional Amelia and the chilly Vic Frankenstein in Frankenstein Upstairs are so vastly different in kind that it seems like two different actresses. Rogers, who is a champ at hiding exposition in action and dialogue, oddly chose to have Bill unveil the whole terraforming and alien collaboration plan in a Bond villain style monologue to his family right at the end.
It’s an interesting choice and one that some critics cried foul and bristled about. I disagree. I think the monologue as delivered by Williams works very well and I also think that the bristling of the audience part of its purpose. First off, Bill is TOTALLY acting like a super villain at that point. He is taking it upon himself – however smart and capable he may be – to make a sweeping decision that will affect the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE AND WORLD. He is about to literally press a freaking DOOMSDAY BUTTON and summon a conquering alien army. This is textbook super villain behavior. And yet we bristle. We bristle because in this scene, after two acts of seeing Bill lie to his family about something, our emotional allegiance is squarely with Amelia and the kids. Rogers has painstakingly kept us as in the dark about his actions as they are. We are put off by this because we feel, as Amelia does, that this cannot be the same Bill Cooke who we saw tenderly discuss his son’s sexuality with Amelia in an earlier scene. Surely his lies couldn’t have been about something this big, this misguided? This cannot be the Bill who finally, after months of emotional distance, reconciled with his wife. Who is this guy? Williams, as Bill, has a hard road to hoe; he has this one scene to convince his wife and family – and by extension us in the audience – that his plan to turn the Earth over to a race of giant bugs is both right and will work.
In this way Rogers and Gideon don’t just portray Bill and Amelia’s relationship in Advance Man; in these final moments they pull us directly inside it in a very unnerving way. And it works, in large part because of Williams’ affecting performance in that last scene.
Everybody in Universal Robots
I am in the middle of rereading Universal Robots as part of the so-far very enjoyable Geek Theater collection, which I will be posting a review for sometime in the next few weeks. Though it has been years since I saw the production at Manhattan Theater Source back in 2009, I’ve always remembered the tender, Flowers for Algernon style romance between Jo and the gradually more conscious robot Radius very fondly. Jennifer Gordan Thomas and Jason Howard played that subdued dance of infatuation superbly, but in this reading I’ve found that essentially all of the romantic relationships in the play involve some highly imaginative component.
Part of the genius of Rogers’ Universal Robots is its all-out absorbing of the play that inspired it, Karel Čapek’s 1920 R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robots). The Czech playwright Čapek is actually one of the main characters of Rogers’ play, which imagines what would have happened if humanoid robots had actually been invented in Czechoslovakia around the time the word “robot” was invented in Čapek’s play. What Rogers provides is a sweepingly political story that shuffles the history of the twentieth century as we know it – the robot producing Czechoslovakia becomes a major world super power, the Nazi threat is quashed early on by an army of weaponized robots, and eventually, the robots take over. In fact, the play itself is just a ritual “telling” of this story by a group of robots.
The robots are created through a process invented by Doctor Rossum. Thanks the doctor’s daughter, Helena, we come to understand that this female Doctor Rossum, played brilliantly by Nancy Sirianni, was actually the wife of the real Doctor Rossum, who died years before. Since his death, the female Rossum has taken over her husband’s identity and identifies herself as a male – even a “widower,” referring instead to a wife who had passed away. Meanwhile Čapek, played by David Ian Lee, falls in love with and marries Rossum’s daughter Helena. In the later years of the play, Helena dies of cancer. Unbeknownst to Čapek, Rossum builds a very convincing and anatomically complete automaton replica of Helena. While the play is a little enigmatic about it, we can assume that the grieving Čapek eventually accepts the robot as a replacement lover.
Like all of Gideon’s plays, Universal Robots doesn’t just let its relationships lie there; it uses them to ask truly unique questions about how people behave – in its fantasy world and in ours. How far are we willing to go to cope with the loss of a spouse? Will we accept a synthetic copy of them purely for comfort? Will we delude ourselves by trying to imagine and live out a better scenario, one where we died and our spouse lived on? How much of a person does someone have to be for us to love them? While Universal Robots is chiefly concerned with the ongoing surge of history, the play also makes full use of its high concept by exploring these far boundaries of romantic love.
Theater company mission statements are pretty disposable to me. I know they are helpful when applying for tax exempt status or when designing a website, but usually I find them overstated or flat-out inaccurate. Gideon actually has a good one. At one point it reads “We explore what’s strange about being human and what’s human about being strange.”
What could be stranger than a person in love? Even Shakespeare, for whom love was the great metaphysical equalizer, never missed an opportunity to underline how bizarre his characters act when they are in love. On paper, the relationships in Gideon are very strange – they are between people and robots or people and science monsters or people and aliens or people who plan to kill each other together or even just one very sad person.
But whatever they are, because of Gideon’s deft touch we understand them all as people. They are people who make sacrifices for each other and take care of each other. Their relationships feel real; any strangeness is just the echo of that very human relationship bouncing off the walls of whichever genre Gideon has decided to play with.
After looking back at Gideon’s ongoing multifaceted dialogue on the topic of love, I’ll double down on my statement from earlier: we in the audience are all hopelessly outgunned.
Asymmetric is playing at 59E59 through December 6. The show seems to be selling out, but you can look into getting tickets here.