Theater Review: “Citizens of the Empire” — A Copycat Cosmos

It is strange that Citizens of the Empire is so weirdly underdeveloped, given that it has been in development for quite a while now.

Citizens of the Empire by Kevin Mullins. Directed by Lindsay Eagle. Presented by Boston Public Works at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at The Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through January 23.

A scene from "Citizens of the Empire." Is anyone going to deliver the laundry?

Alissa Cordeiro, James Hayward, and Kristen Heider in a scene from “Citizens of the Empire.” Is anyone going to deliver the laundry? Photo: Jake Scaltreto.

By Ian Thal

Science fiction is hardly a new thing in the theater. After all, it was Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. that popularized the word “robot.” With the greater acceptance of science fiction and fantasy in American popular culture, it was perhaps inevitable that the genre would begin to appear with greater frequency on stage, to the point that some companies are dedicated entirely to creating future worlds.

In his program notes, playwright Kevin Mullins notes that while “we are seeing plays set in dystopian cities, in the aftermath of alien invasions, [and] about the birth of artificial intelligence [….] I saw that the genre of Space Opera was sorely lacking.” Space opera is the science-fiction sub-genre devoted to setting interstellar adventure against a background of political or military intrigue. Given the number of historical dramas on stage, forecasting the future would seem to be a natural.

Citizens of the Empire opens with three prisoners being revived from from suspended animation during a rescue attempt. The convicts are Josephine Antonelli (Alissa Cordeiro), a sex worker who angered her former bosses, Rex T-1-5-23 (Kristen Heider), an android organizer of the Intergalactic Robots Union, and Marcus Kent (James Hayward), a minor nobleman stripped of his titles because he sided with a populist insurgency on his home planet of Petra. Their rescuer is Sydney Azzi (Kathleen C. Lewis), the pilot of a garbage hauling spaceship and human ally of the robots.

Before they died from the plague, Kent’s family members were nouveau-riche, so he was educated alongside the heir-apparent to the Empire, Princess Evelyn Martus (Melissa M. de Jesus). He also hung out with Edward Lydell of the Shipping Guild (David N. Rogers, who also served as dramaturg) as well as Naomi (Katharine Daly) and Griffin (Johnny Quinones) Petrov, the children of Petra’s hereditary ruler, Lady Abigail Petrov (Juliet Bowler). Before he turned radical, Marcus had been the lover of the apolitical Griffin, who is now nursing his broken heart with a high class gigolo, Rafi Bowman (Michael John Ciszewski). Sadly, the romantic subplots don’t add much.

Citizens of the Empire is space opera at its most safely generic. The basic elements of the plot are reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel Dune. There’s a pampered courtly culture in which the rich maintain their own authoritarian military and intelligence services; their children learn to govern future planets by carousing, attending balls, and studying swordplay. One planet is the sole source for a commodity upon which the empire is dependent, and there’s an armed insurgency threatening to crash the economy. What set Herbert’s epic novel and its sequels as well as its film and and television adaptations apart from other space operas in that period was the convincing specificity of the author’s world building – the different religious movements, a caste system powered by mind-altering drugs in which humans have been shaped to fill specialized tasks. And, of course, there’s the ecology of the planet Arrakis itself.

Mullins lazily hews to Herbert’s narrative and then stints on what gave the novel its imaginative power — the specific political, economic, and cultural details that make the fantasy concrete. To its credit, Citizens of the Empire is more progressive about the status of women and attitudes towards sexual orientation than the empire in Dune, but that might be because it was written a half century later. The critiques of colonialism, imperialism, and class struggle that drove the conflicts in Dune and its numerous imitators mentioned (most prominently in the program notes) but these issues are mostly window dressing — Brecht in space this is not. There are some debates here and there about “what must be done” – especially amongst the revolutionaries — as well as questions posed about solidarity, compromise, extremism, and realpolitik. (There are a few blink-and-you-miss-it references to the “hacktivist” group Anonymous and drone warfare.) But these speeches feel like inserts — words beamed into the mouths of the characters. Ideas are tossed out in ways that don’t further the plot, explain the predicament of the world, or develop the personalities of their speakers.

The elemental problem is that the political economy of Mullins’ world just doesn’t make sense. A single planet serves as “the gas station of the Empire”? How did humans expand across the galaxy before the discovery of Petra and its naturally occurring deposits of the radioactive isotope hydrogen-3? After all, our own primitive nuclear reactors produce it in small amounts. Wouldn’t a super civilization be able to synthesize hydrogen-3 with relative ease? If rocket fuel is so scarce why are spaceships hauling garbage across the universe? A scene in which Josephine hand washes the starship’s laundry poses questions about “women’s work,” but why doesn’t a spaceship with a shower also have a washer and dryer? There are vague suggestions that Princess Evelyn intends to be a reformer once she is made Empress. Perhaps she will order the mass production of laundromats.

In a galaxy far, far, away? A scene from "Citizens of the Empire." Photo:

In a galaxy far, far away? Melissa M. deJesus and Juliet Bowler in a scene from “Citizens of the Empire.” Photo: Jake Scaltreto.

There’s very little that the cast members of Citizens of the Empire can do to inject life into their bland roles – deJesus, who has impressed in past roles, could not do much as Princess Evelyn. Juliet Bowler brings some much needed gravitas to the villainous Lady Petrov, and Kristen Heider invests Rex and the other androids with some interestingly off-putting mannerisms, but the rest of the performers are given little to do but stand around and look pretty. And when they are not standing around yaking they are sitting around jawboning. James Hayward’s choreography for the dance scenes are not particularly inspired, but they offer much needed relief from the play’s static-to-the-max blocking.

Violence designer Arielle Kaplan seemed to have little time to rehearse fight scenes with the cast. There is a well-executed strangulation near the end, but overall the sword fights are slow, lackluster, and signify nothing about the personae of the combatants. There is never a sense of danger; these are perhaps the most boring sword fights I have seen since I began reviewing theater.

Not all is bleak in Citizens of the Empire. The production’s visual elements are effective, reflecting what appears to be a fairly consistent effort to pay tribute to the design sensibilities of 1970s Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, British programs that were more successful as dramas and political critiques. Prop designer Jake Scaltreto has created some fine looking futuristic firearms and wearable computers. Set designer Megan F. Kinneen has built an angular yet functional playing space for the interiors of spacecraft and the Imperial capital. (There are some amusingly indecipherable dials, meters, and buttons stuck on the walls.) Costume designer Erica Desautels dresses both citizens and nobility in a mixture of earth tones and shiny space-age materials. The gown and diadem combo donned by Princess Evelyn and the dress uniform worn by Naomi Petrov are particularly memorable.

It is strange that Citizens of the Empire is so weirdly lame, given that it has been in development for quite a while now. An earlier draft of the play was presented as a staged reading co-produced by Flat Earth Theatre and Interim Writers in December of 2012. Why didn’t somebody along the way tell playwright Mullins, director Eagle, or dramaturg Rogers (all of whom have been involved with this project for years) that simply removing references to House Atreides, sandworms, the Bene Gesserit, and melange wasn’t enough to disguise just how much the plot steals from one of the best known space operas in popular literature? This will not do. Can’t our playwrights come up with a futuristic vision, relevant and tailored for the stage, that isn’t stuck in the past? Who needs a copycat cosmos?

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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