Every once and a while I stop what I’m doing and look around.
This is the world, right? The real world? I wonder to myself: when did it happen? Was it the emergence of the internet? Or of convention culture? At what point did the geeks for reals inherit the Earth?
When I was a teenager in Georgia in the 90s it felt like there were so few of us. The sacred relics of our people – Silver Age comics, Doctor Who merchandise, and VHS copies of the Star Wars Christmas Special – were all but impossible to track down. Now that stuff is EVERYWHERE, just a click away and in multiple formats. Geek culture has infected popular culture. And that’s because the purveyors of media have gotten smart. They know that we geeks have proven ourselves able to weather a drought of content for decades by fastidiously debating and documenting the arcana of an odd Star Trek rerun. We dutifully show up en masse for film releases and book signings. We are active consumers of content. We don’t just watch or read these things, we live them and talk about them constantly in public forums. We carry the torch for our favorite properties during fallow periods. I am still part of, like, six different groups on Facebook devoted to bringing back the Joss Whedon show Firefly. There is so much geek content out there now that massive entertainment conglomerates are basically at war over who can put out the most $200 million super hero movies. Movie studios and A-list directors fight over who will get to reboot or relaunch or rehash the next beloved Sci-Fi franchise from yesteryear as a CG 4D IMAX extravaganza.
If there ever was a moment for a collection of plays like Geek Theater: Fifteen Plays by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, this is it. The recently published volume has been carefully curated by editors Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood to celebrate the current proliferation of “geek” related content in theater. As a New York theater critic, I have had the great privilege of witnessing this invasion of geek genres and ideas first hand over the last ten years; in fact, I have previously reviewed productions of two of the plays published here. In this collection – as on the stages of innumerable downtown theaters – science fictions concepts like zombies, space travel, and cloning are stacked next to modern reimaginings of classical literature and theatrical explorations of geek culture itself. In their introduction to Geek Theater, the editors make a point to note that this is the first collection of its kind – featuring only Short, Medium, and Full Length plays that were written with the intention of being performed live on stage. (Previous collections of sci-fi plays were inevitably made up of radio plays or teleplays.) In this four-part review I will have a little (and sometimes a little more) to say about each of these plays, but I did want to mention a few things about them as a collection in this introductory installment.
First is each plays laser like and impressive specificity. Every one of these stories frames itself within a very particular environment or universe and does so with such relish. The difference in vernacular between, say, a story about a steampunk type robot and a steampunk type robot in Castro’s Cuba is staggering; the localized flavor adds a true authenticity to the fantastical elements of the story. Similarly, there have been many retellings of the Faust story, but I don’t know that there has ever been a version where Faust has been recast as Groucho Marx. I love that all these play enjoy wallowing in their weird specificities to such a degree. It has been fun to imagine (in the cases where I have not seen a production) what live versions of these plays might look like.
In theater the aesthetic is always at the mercy of the budget – especially in indie theater where the budgets are usually pretty small. A show at the Barrow Street Theater cannot afford to include two giant Transformers robots fighting each other and a play at the Secret Theater in Long Island City cannot logistically depict a race of giant praying mantis aliens destroying civilization and then enslaving the human race. These are things that movies do well, but live theater cannot. What live theater can do well is intimacy. Thinking On similar lines, Hitchcock once said that the greatest special effect in a movie is a close up – that’s a good point, but even a close up pales in comparison to the close quarters capable with live theater. An audience is literally there in the room with the story. There are no jump cuts, no montages; audiences must feel their way through a situation in real time.
The tremendous plays in this collection fully understand this opportunity and use it to marvelous effect while spinning their epic science fiction yarns. Whether they are astronauts in an orbiter or super-intelligent scientists trying to cure a plague, the characters in these plays are characters first and are never one-dimensional genre props. In the tradition of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the plays collected in Geek Theater keep the big ticket special effects mostly off-stage and instead find their stories in the human moments and mind-blowing ideas in the spaces between. I’m fascinated and invigorated by the idea that while mindless effects-laden movies are becoming common in Hollywood, the pure science fiction of the mind lives on and thrives in live theater.
Part 2 of my review will post next week and will concern the Short Plays collected in Geek Theater.
For more information or to purchase a copy of Geek Theater visit: http://underwordspress.com/underwords_book/geek-theater/