thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Blast Radius”: The Revolution Is Here

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2012 at 8:37 am

Sarah T.

spoilers ahead!

“We can lie to the people we love,” one character tells another in the sci-fi play Blast Radius. She’s talking to an alien in a human’s body, and she means both to give the alien permission and to explain the warty compromises people make in times of crisis. But aliens, it turns out, have secrets of their own. This one is becoming more human all the time.

Playwright Mac Rogers has created a uniquely moving post-apocalyptic world in Blast Radius, playing at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City through April 14. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with cast member Seth Shelden and have met several other people involved with the production.) The play has the dramatic tension and sweeping stakes of a blockbuster film, but the big explosions and giant insects are all offstage. Michael Bay would be so sad! Meanwhile, with Jordana Williams’ intimate direction, the emphasis on complex characters and nuanced relationships is ratcheted way up.

The deal is this: Twelve years prior, the human race and the aliens on Mars were at the end of their respective ropes. An astronaut ambassador struck a deal with the communally-minded, nature-loving aliens: they could come to earth if they’d help the humans survive. They would save each other.

But as the play opens, nobody is too pleased with the bargain. The aliens have assumed power, forcing humans into labor as farmhands, imposing curfews, and breaking up families. Hospitals are long gone; so are computers and phones and all other modern technology.

Needless to say, the humans are not fans of this arrangement—particularly not those gathered at the boarding house for pregnant women, where a revolution is beginning to stir. Perhaps they’re the ones responsible for the mysterious explosions going off with alarming frequency in the fields? The aliens think so, and they’re looking to shut the uprising down before it starts.

On opposite sides of the conflict are a brother and sister, the children of the astronaut who struck the bargain in the first place. Abbie (David Rosenblatt) is a former misfit who has felt isolated all his life. In his eyes, even sex is “an extraordinary effort for a split second of connection before it’s lost to the thrashing.” The aliens—who communicate telepathically, work collaboratively, and live together in a space called the honeycomb—are, for him, an antidote to the selfishness and disconnect of human consciousness.

His sister Ronnie (Becky Byers) is a pint-sized dynamo who’s out for independence. She loves selectively and fiercely, carving out a small circle of warmth for her family, her Mal Reynolds-esque lover Peck (Adam Swiderski), and her no-nonsense ally Shirley (Nancy Sirianni). Just as strong as her love is her vicious commitment to saving the human race. “I am the daughter of the man who put us here,” Ronnie tells a skeptic. ”That’s how you’ll know I’ll never stop.”

Rogers’ heart-wrenching script won’t let either side gain a true moral upper hand. It’s true that it’s impossible not to cheer for the humans and for Ronnie: After all, she’s a vampire slayer and a pioneer woman rolled into one. But she’s also dangerous. As she plots the rebellion, she has to persuade over 50 people to give up their lives for the cause. One of her recruits, Jimmy (Joe Mathers), points out how ridiculous it is to ask people to go on a suicide mission. “It’s not scary, it’s just no,” he proclaims. “Here’s them: Drink poison and blow up. Here’s me: No.”

Reasonable take, Jimmy! But he caves; everyone eventually does. Ronnie knows just how to reel them in, zeroing in on their hopes and fears and soft spots with a tilt of her head and a few silky words. As a feminist heroine, she’s rootable but hugely flawed—which makes her exactly the kind of person whose story I want to follow.

To the credit of the script and devoted cast, every character in the play is more than the sum of his or her ideological parts. Take Dev (Seth Shelden) and Clem (Alisha Spielmann), two reluctant members of the revolution. Clem is sharp and keen-eyed, suspicious of everyone and always two steps ahead. Dev is big-hearted and down-to-earth, and increasingly certain that Clem’s love for him is circumstantial. Their true but complicated love helps ground the life-or-death big picture of the play, as does Kristen Vaughn as Ronnie and Abbie’s sick mother, who only wants her children to reconcile.

These broken and breaking relationships are at the heart of Blast Radius, which is propelled by the rifts that open when people give themselves over to a larger cause and give one another over too. Everyone in the play, aliens and humans alike, is starved for connection. But they can’t even keep what they already have.

Even Ronnie, who has the selfish, specific love her brother detests, is finally forced to sacrifice what she’s promised herself she never would. To the very end she’s hungry and blazing for love, desperate to hang onto what makes her human. She knows she’s almost out of time. “Whatever there is is enough,” she says. “Nothing’s enough, so I’ll take anything.”

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