Friday, November 28, 2014

Theater Needs More Scifi: The Aurora Project

It's been my pleasure in the last year or so to meet and interact with some of the members of Otherworld Theatre, a Chicago-based company dedicated to the production of science fiction and fantasy theater. Recently, Otherworld's artistic director, Tiffany Keane, invited me to watch Otherworld's most recent production, "The Aurora Project" by Bella Poynton.

First and foremost: let it be known that I fully endorse Otherworld Theatre's mission. Speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) is more popular than ever but has not seeped into live theater to the same extent it has seeped into TV, movies, video games, books, comics, and nearly every other art-form out there. There are reasons for this but that's another blog entry. It's too bad because sci-fi and fantasy and theater are in many ways an ideal match. Really good science fiction uses hypothetical situations to tell you a story about real-life humanity. Star Trek is a story about exploration, human curiosity, and overcoming our baser instincts to build a better world. Jurassic Park shows us the dangers of taking scientific experimentation too far. Live theater on the other hand, allows us to become immersed in stories- to experience Elizabethan England or the 1950's in person. It makes sense to merge the two: let audience members become fully immersed in a spaceship or a dragon's lair. Theater and sci-fi/fantasy can only benefit from cross-pollination.

In this regard, "The Aurora Project" should be considered a success. When you walk into the Right Brain Project (where the play is currently running) you will believe that you are within the hold of the spaceship Aurora. You will feel like a part of the ship as its two crew members, Constantine and Nora, explore the cosmos. The set is intimate (almost claustrophobic), and suitably believable as a spaceship. In addition to the look and feel of the set, a TV screen has been built into the set that acts as a viewscreen allowing for some dynamic effects throughout the show. The physical world that Otherworld has built may be the best part of the show.

The actual story alternates between some very high points- particularly flashbacks that examine the nature of humanity, love, and sentience through the eyes of the android Constantine and some lower ones- the relationship between Nora (Grace Gimpelas) and Constantine (Kai Young) never seems to click the way it should. Fortunately, each of the supporting characters is excellent- well-written AND well acted. I desperately wanted to see more of Bennett Decker Bottero as the alien Questry, Christian Robert Isley V as Constantine's designer, and Sarah Scanlon as the Gatekeeper. Questry especially was a fascinating character whose story could've filled it's own play.

The story is a little guilty of an issue common to much of sci-fi- there are probably one too many tropes crammed into one space. It's a robot story AND a space exploration story AND an end of humanity story, etc. and so on but at its heart "Aurora Project" is an attempt to do justice to space opera on the stage and it's mostly a successful one.

After seeing "The Aurora Project," I am excited to see what Otherworld does next. The potential that the company displays in this relatively small production is tantalizing and promising for those of us who keep one foot in the world of live theater and another in the realm of sci-fi geekery.