Early in February I went to see the first full production of Generation Red, a science fiction play by Alexander Utz, at Chicago’s Otherworld Theatre Company on Clark Street near Irving Park Road, across the street from the gloriously spooky Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery. Led by Tiffany Keane Schaefer, Otherworld delivers some pretty cray performances, either intensely scientifictional or intensely geek-centric. I get lost at the geek-centric stuff, never having watched any of the seminal cultural artifacts that mean so much to that community. <hoping Cat doesn’t find out about that>
But I love the science fiction, fantasy, and horror plays. Generation Red was fabulous.
The story opens with four young people, by their manner I’d guess in their late teens, who are the first generation of humans to be born and raised on the human colony on Mars. Their parents are all scientists who work for the colony; the kids hardly ever see them. Instead they have been educated largely by Marvin, a deceptively computerish voice heard from above. At the moment, the four of them have just completed their final exams. If they pass, they will be allowed to leave The Compound and join in the work their parents are pursuing.
From the beginning, it’s apparent that these four have spent their entire lives together. They’ve played the same games, they’ve taken the same tests, they’ve studied and quarreled and made up and played the games all over again. Just the four of them.
One game they love is called Simulation. In this game they use costumes and props provided by Marvin. They adopt well-worn identities in one or another scenario that purports to take place on Earth: the sheriff, the barkeep, the town drunk, and the out-of-town gunslinger. The parents waiting for their teenage daughter to return past her curfew with her date. A couple of others. In theory these games allow them to experience Earthlike social contexts, simulate Earthlike emotional relationships, use Earth technology like guns and aprons, and speculate endlessly on how things, you know, actually work down there. Because Earth is the great mystery. They may never get to go there. Their parents may never return there. It’s distant, magical, confusing, dangerous.
As soon as the youngsters appear and their circumstances are explained, I know I am in for a ride through the relationships that have formed among the four of them during their claustrophobically intimate upbringing. What captured my heart was the Simulation game, and the realization that they were going to reveal their characters and the enduring features of their interrelationships by playing these games in front of us, the audience. Moreover, they would be playing scenarios that they had played hundreds of times before, choosing roles they had each chosen before, swapped before, changed up so often that their props and costumes have become limp with use. More than that, something startlingly new to the kids would happen. We the audience would be seeing all these layers, how these kids’ identities nested within identities crossed against identities which they have often adopted, re-gendered, shared, rebuilt, and how they would be surprised.
I rolled over with my paws in the air. So to speak. This is so freakin’ meta, I murmured to my companion, who edged her chair a little farther away from mine.
And so it came to pass.
Of course I anticipated that those four identities would be challenged, as would the game identities they put on and took off like costumes for the Simulations, and we would see deep character changes take place for each kid as it becomes apparent that Marvin is unconscionably delaying announcing the results of their test scores, that their parents haven’t visited them in a long time, that something is going wrong outside The Compound, that something even worse may be happening on Earth.
And that’s what happened.
And it was great. The company did a fine job of executing all these expectations impeccably, surprisingly, challengingly.
This sort of story is a gorgeous use of what I call The Marriage Box Rule. “This is the box. We will get in the box. Nobody gets into the box with us. Nobody gets out of the box. We will stay in the box. All other rules are negotiable.” (I made that up.)
The Box Rule applies not only to newlyweds but to children stuck indoors on a rainy day, people trapped in stalled elevators, convicts emprisoned in the same cell, a freakin’ boy and a tiger in a freakin’ boat. Never mind who seems to have the upper hand when the lights go up. Everyone will take a turn, and the power relationships among them will even out, inescapably egalitarian. Anyone who has been married a long time (for a given value of “a long time”) knows that this works, although we may shake our heads over how.
A good Box is air-tight. Half the fun is watching its inhabitants bang their heads against it like lightning bugs in a jar. The other half is watching them change each other.
As the layers of external pressure close in on the four kids–Marvin’s defection, their parents’ abandoning them, the colony’s technical troubles, the catastrophe on Earth–their relationships and the strength of character of each kid are tested. Yadda yadda.
That stuff’s not why this play is so good.
Why it’s so good is that every inch of emotional travel is covered and every character pairing gets plucked like a guitar string, plucked and tuned, as the kids slip in and out of character in their Simulation roles, quarrel over what game to play next, who gets to be the sheriff and who the mom, speculate on Earth as it was, Earth in crisis, The Compound’s damage, Marvin’s plan, their parents, their parents. Their nested identities open, play against one another, change under stress, and form bonds new and yet the same. Sounds easy, right? Okay, you go write one. Make it interesting. Make it sing. Hit every note.
It’s like freakin’ Kabuki. Only, you know, science fiction.
This show ran January 17-February 2, 2020, but you may get lucky someday and see it elsewhere or elsewhen.
Generation Red, by Alexander Utz, directed by Bec Willett, with Bo Armstrong, Erin Ellis, Alyssa Ratkovich, and Dre Sampson. Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL, 60613.
Fools Paradise has a dandy Marriage Box. When Bobbyjay’s relatives fill Daisy’s grandfather’s vintage Porsche full of live smelt, Bobbyjay and Daisy have to fake getting engaged to prevent these backstage Montagues and Capulets from reanimating an old blood feud.