By Nate Beyer
Part cautionary tale about the fate of the earth, part homage to Samuel Beckett, part theatrical metaphor for dementia, X is a harrowing exploration of the human psyche.
X by Alistair McDowall. Directed by Lindsay Eagle. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center of the Arts in Watertown, MA, through November 16.
Science fiction is a genre that poses distinct challenges for the stage. Lightsaber battles, the Deathstar, laser blasters, and alien goo (all of this coming with hi-grade CGI) would be out of the question in a black box theater. But there is a quieter kind of sci-fi — explored in movies such as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and James Gray’s Ad Astra and the novels of Stanislaw Lem — that understand that space is the place for the exploration of the parameters of the human, an opportunity to excavate inner consciousness. And that is, wisely, where Flat Earth Theater’s latest production ventures.
X‘s setting is a space station on Pluto that has recently lost contact with Earth. Back on the home planet, humanity has been losing various forms of life for decades, from trees to birds (both extinct) to most other animals. At first, the crew members seem to be those we would find lounging on the deck of the Enterprise: the jaded captain shepherding a crew of newbies into deep space, his tightly wound female lieutenant, a young “space-bro,” and the (dare I say it) earthy young engineer-y woman. Yet everything is not as it seems. An enigmatic shadow stalks the space station, an apparition in the form of a young girl with an X carved where her mouth should be.
As if the It-like claustrophobic isolation and the tension of being stalked by some alien life-form wasn’t enough, the human residents of Pluto have another big problem: time. The computer system’s auto link with the “common time” used on earth has been severed, and the onboard clock malfunctions. In a world without a sunrise or sunset, this temporal disorientation dissolves the population’s sense of reality. Soon, the voyagers become unmoored, caught up in a loop of repeating scenes, one on top of the other. The borders of the self, the ego of each character, breaks down and reforms. Stories are repeated and retold as characters cycle through acts of remembering and forgetting.
The script, by noted playwright Alistair McDowall (Pomona, Brilliant Adventures), does not offer his characters an easy way out of their quandary. While eschewing the easy tropes of escapist sci-fi (no “everyone into the transducer!” moments), McDowall leaves chunks of script (particularly in the show’s second half) in the hands of director Lindsay Eagle and her cast. We are talking improv here: several pages of the script have Xs instead of dialogue and stage directions. In lesser hands, the work’s heady blend of metaphysics and psychology would probably result in unintentional comedy. But the director and cast rise to the out-of-this-world challenge. Cassandra Meyer as Gilda, the anxious second in command, and space bro Clark (Nick Perron) are excellent. Ray, the crusty veteran Captain, is played with quiet fatalism by David Anderson. Slava Tchoul, as scientist Cole, brings in an element of repressed fury. Abigail Erdelatz, as Mattie, supplies an emotional honesty that anchors the production — we need to care about the struggles of these trapped voyagers. Meyer and Perron in particular bring welcome depth to their roles: their characters change from “crew member” cutouts to fully rendered human beings who experience fear, pain, love, and even gentle laughter before the end.
The nonlinear plotting does not bother to answer every question raised (this isn’t Agatha Christie in space). X is a study in revelation through disintegration. As the varnish of civilization is stripped away, the fate and origins of characters are revealed. At one point, Gilda and Clark are reduced to a wordless state, near primates who are able to communicate only through physical contact and gestures. This is an Adam and Eve fable in reverse: the final coupling of the play, perhaps the last human pair in the universe, give us man sliding back into a fallen world — not a paradise. Part cautionary tale about the fate of the earth, part homage to Samuel Beckett, part theatrical metaphor for dementia, X is a harrowing exploration of the human psyche: death, fear, love, sickness, and the enduring ties of family. At the end of the universe, we find nothing but ourselves.
Nate Beyer is a writer and educator, and winner of the St Botolph Foundation Emerging Artist Award. His work has appeared in Dark Sky Magazine, the Arts Fuse, the Adirondack Review, and in print in Attache, the in flight magazine of US Airways. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.