nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
April 5, 2012
Mac Rogers' first installment of his Honeycomb Trilogy, Advance Man, was, on its surface, about a team of astronauts who encountered alien life that had crash-landed on Mars and struck a deal for peaceful cohabitation of earth that would be mutually beneficial for humans and the insectoid, hive-minded race; but, at its heart, it was truly a story about the Cooke family, who, despite problems that threatened to tear it apart from within, would do anything to protect each other—even at the expense of the human race and each other’s trust. Part 2 of Gideon Productions’ and Mac Rogers’ sci-fi trilogy, Blast Radius, now playing at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, expands the story’s scale. While it deals with the socio-political effects of a massively remade planet and infrastructure after years under a benevolent “bug” takeover, it presents a moving, insightful, and bittersweet portrait of the human condition and questions the boundaries of love. Blast Radius surpasses its fantastic predecessor and transcends the normally stagnant filler that often plagues the middle chapter of trilogies, building brilliantly on a world that has previously been visited, but also succeeding as an affecting, standalone piece of theatre.
Blast Radius takes place 12 years after Advance Man and is set entirely in the Cooke family home, once again. Through a brilliantly detailed, gritty set design by Sandy Yaklin, it is obvious that times have not been easy on the house and we are in a much different world now. Where Advance Man cultivated a sense of foreboding throughout but still had many moments of great levity, Blast Radius has a much more battered, oppressive tone. Before the show even starts, classic rock plays over a tinny radio—seemingly an homage to times long gone (a wonderful touch by sound designer Jeanne Travis, who does great work throughout, providing very raw, tribal underscoring); and Jennifer Linn Wilcox’s lighting is dim and dingy, creating the perfect mood. From moment one, we know that a lot has happened since we last met these characters.
The bugs have been successful at setting up their honeycombs (their hives) throughout the world, and humans work for them in their swamp farms. The only people exempt from the slave labor are pregnant women who are rounded up and kept in the Cooke house until they have their babies. The humans, while oppressed, for the most part accept this as the way things will be from now on, but a small resistance is growing that aims to purge the Honeycomb from the planet forever. Shirley, the midwife of the Cooke home, has taken the lead (played with a motherly sensibility and protectiveness by Nancy Sirianni) but is quickly being overcome by the fiery Ronnie, daughter of the late Bill Cooke, the astronaut who masterminded the bug takeover. However, Abbey—her brother, a perpetual outsider whom she was constantly bound to protect when he was younger—has become one of the most devoted followers of the Honeycomb, putting them now at deadly odds with each other. Conor, the first ”transition person,” with a human body and the mind of one of the “bugs”—the first alien ambassador to the human race—and now Abbey’s lover, is caught in the middle of this family conflict, and, by extension, the conflict between the humans and the bugs. A resistance is rising and causing mysterious explosions at the farms forcing the invading bugs to consider a more final solution.
Rogers uses these three characters’ relationships with each other as the heart of his play and as the foundation of the questions he poses. They each appeared in Advance Man and have grown considerably, but quite logically. Ronnie, played in a glowing performance by Becky Byers, holds onto her fiery rebellious instincts and has developed into a person who can read people so well she can pursue anyone to follow her cause, even to the death (a trait she inherited from her father). However, though she projects a bitter, calculating, emotionless exterior, Byers never lets Ronnie lose her heart. In the face of the ultimate sacrifice, she still falls to her knees in the face of love, refusing to sacrifice her man, Peck (played with a quiet resolve by Adam Swiderski) . Byers’ portrayal is a perfect emotional tightrope between strength and vulnerability.
Abbey has bought fully into the Honeycomb’s agenda, a cast-out his entire life, he’s finally found something he can be a part of: a closeness he never felt in humanity. While he still has a childish petulance, Rogers’ development of the character and David Rosenblatt’s sensitive, earnest portrayal make someone could easily be the black-and-white “villain” into a man who can no longer deal with the selfishness and hurt of human relationships and love—the deception—and wants something bigger and more unconditionally excepting.
Conor, who Jason Howard brilliantly, beautifully infuses with a sense of childlike wonder and deep devotion, is stuck going the opposite direction. Displaced from the hive-mind of his race and exiled to a human body, he has grown deeply attached to humanity and the way people feel and interact. He longs for Abbey’s love and for the warmth of human contact. As he and Abbey grow farther apart in their beliefs, and as these beliefs alienate Ronnie and Abbey from each other more and more, the individual disintegrations become even more heartbreaking than the dire stakes Rogers has created.
Advance Man succeeded because it created the feeling of something “other” in a low-key way. There was one set and we never saw the bugs, but you could feel them just on the periphery; Blast Radius builds on this approach, taking it further. We once again never see the invaders but we know they are just outside; and Rogers uses this masterfully to show its effect on the people we get to watch. There are a bevy of characters Rogers employs. While they aren’t as central to pushing the plot along, they are essential in proving his points about love, humanity, and resilience under great pressure. There is no weak performance in the show, nothing is ancillary. Joe Mathers, as Jimmy, brings pretty much the only moments of comic relief in the show, but he does it with a true humanity—he creates a guy who is so scared he uses his humor to cope. Felicia Hudson, as Fee, his girlfriend and baby-mama (for lack of a better term), is sweet and sensitive but obviously holds a true affection for Jimmy despite all of his flaws. Alisha Spielman’s caution and sharp wit, as Clem, shine as a foil to the reckless, rebellious Ronnie and her relationship with the less intelligent but lovable Dev (Seth Sheldon) makes a profound point about loving people because we have to have companionship. Cotton Wright infuses mystery and wonder into her turn as the enigmatic Willa. Kristen Vaughan makes a heart-wrenching return as Ronnie and Abbey’s dying mother who is mired by her guilt over her part in the invasion and the schism in her family.
Blast Radius is a moving piece of theatre that pays a deep respect to its genre, but ultimately transcends it. Jordana Williams’ tight pacing and beautiful direction squeezes out every ounce of hurt, love, and emotion that Rogers' script has afforded them. This triumphant production shows that, while we’re dealing with complex things that are out of this world, the heart of any great sci-fi piece, or for that matter any great drama, is its simple humanity.