I changed my mind – instead of a three more very long parts, my review of Geek Theater: 15 Plays by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers will come out in short bursts. Sometimes I will devote these mini posts to a single play as in the below, other times I might discuss a couple of plays per post. There will be *SPOILERS* in these reviews.
Editors Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood issue a kind of thesis statement by opening Geek Theater with Jeannie Beckwith’s short play Mission to Mars, a dark comedy about two astronauts stranded in orbit above the red planet.
As I mentioned in my introduction, science fiction in theater is a very different animal than it is in a movie or a novel. Gunnels and Underwood want to draw that line in the sand early, so they begin with a play that covers narrative ground that has recently been duly explored in film and fiction. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity seems to have closed the book on the scenario of two astronauts stranded in orbit, while Andy Weir’s novel The Martian meticulously examines the idea of human survival on Mars. Yet both of these are stories deeply nested in technicality. Page after page of The Martian is devoted to explaining the science behind how the protagonist – and it says something that I loved the book but can’t even remember the character’s name – uses his own bodily waste to fertilize his potatoes in his Martian habitat. Meanwhile, Gravity is an utterly thrilling roller coaster of a movie but the logistics of the plot often hinge on the simple mechanics of life in zero-g; quickly opening hatches and trying to grasp things just out of reach.
Neither of these experiences would work on stage, of course, so Gunnels and Underwood have elected to begin their collection with a play on a similar subject that does what neither a blockbuster movie or a novel could do. Beckwith’s biting little play is essentially Harold Pinter in space. Two astronauts, Major Marty and Spike, passive aggressively antagonize each other while they attempt to carry out their duties and weigh their options. It’s been three weeks since they received a transmission and they cannot begin the trip back to Earth without receiving crucial navigational instructions – if they tried to wing their way back manually, they would risk missing Earth and being lost forever. As far as they know, no help is coming. One of their crewmates, Ralph, is dead and Spike feels strongly that they should eat him when the food pellets run out. Both men seem interested in making time with their female crew member, Allison, who is in cryosleep.
What’s interesting about the play is that it catches the characters at the moment just before the breakdown of civility and order. True aggression and sexual frustration are clearly percolating beneath their idle threats and jokes about a three-way with Allison. We get a sense that the both of these guys will break very soon, but the break does not occur during the plays brief runtime. This is what sets Mission to Mars apart from a movie or piece of long or short prose on the subject. In any other medium we would have to see the inevitable collapse of protocol; in live theater it’s enough that we are in the room and can feel the turmoil gather from moment to moment. Okay, maybe a good film or short story could do this too, but in theater the veil between the audience and the characters is thinner. More of the oily dread seeps through to us, like grease being blotted off a slice of pizza with a napkin.
The ending is masterful – Major Marty says to Spike, “Whatever happens, we’re not eating Ralph.” It is meant to be Marty’s own line the in the sand, but it is nothing more than a final desperate grasp at preserving some kind of social order. In its way, this kind of fumbling for moral decency is as thrilling as Sandra Bullock weightlessly grappling for a tether, if a little more hopeless. It’s pretty clear by the close of the play that option of eating Ralph is still fully on the table. Whether that decision is made sooner rather than later we have to imagine for ourselves.
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