Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 15, 2008
If we perfected the technology to colonize habitable planets, would we try to rid our new society of all its imperfections or would all the greed, hubris, and malevolence be transported to the colony? Or, on the other hand, would we discover something new in ourselves? Untitled Mars offers a simulation of such a colony and yet, at times, it seems so real. The show's creator, Jay Scheib, crashes simulation and reality into each other while weaving together hard science and fiction. The combination makes for an extraordinary experience.
When you walk into the theatre, the simulation is already in progress. There are half-a-dozen cameras and several microphones set up. Three large screens line the back wall, showing us the action on the cameras. You see a lot of audio/video equipment and laptops and cables. I thought I was in for a very technical evening; but there is more story to the production than I expected.
The simulation crew is made up of the roles you may imagine on a Mars mission: the astronaut, the scientist, the psychiatrist, and the spouse. They call one crew member an "anomalous" crew member. She is suffering from schizophrenia. It would seem that almost all of them have this problem but they "manage" it to various degrees. They have affairs and sordid pasts with each other. There is a Martian real estate scam going down and one of them tries to dip his fingers into it, driving him to time travel and murder. The schizoid girl, who communicates strictly through movement, is the key somehow—we just don't know to what.
Mixed in with all this fiction, there is real science from a real crew member of a Mars simulation in Utah, and there are clips of scientists talking about the logistics of a mission to colonize Mars. The crew even tries to follow scientific protocols but the real science is underplayed. The fiction really drives the show. The characters are all quite interesting and funny. The story and the structure of it is odd but not at all hard to follow. It is a bit jarring to have reality bent, broken, and mashed together with fiction. One minute you're watching actors on stage, the next a scientist spouting technical jargon and the next the actors are playing to you through the camera. But it was this controlled chaos that I really enjoyed.
This show grabbed me and held from beginning to end. I could not look away. There is so much to look at, and between all the screens and activity I found myself on the edge of my seat most of the time. The execution of all the switching among cameras and video and all the sound and light cues is flawless. The production quality is great. Scheib's direction is tight and his vision complex and clear. His script contains some insightful thoughts on the nature of human endeavors such as exploration and colonization. There are a couple of brooding poetic monologues and some funny exchanges, though sometimes it is a bit hard to understand if it's supposed to be real or a simulation.
The cast is quite charming. Caleb Hammond gets some good laughs playing the greedy and obnoxious Arnie. Dorka Gryllus is fantastic as the beautiful and mysterious Doreen. Laszlo Keszeg plays very naturally the jaded and tired Sylvere, and Tanya Selvaratnam does a great job as his wife Jackie, the dry and calculating mechanic. April Sweeney is extremely alluring as the psychiatrist with a very effective solution to isolation. And Natalie Thomas is amazing and completely non-stop as Mannie the schizoid girl. Her energy hums throughout the entire performance.
Untitled Mars is a unique experience. I left the show still feeling captivated by what I'd just seen. Sometimes multimedia performances become too convoluted for their own good, but not this one. It's the first part of a trilogy of simulated cities and I for one plan on seeing the other two.