written by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams
The fourth page of the program for Mac Rogers's Blast Radius intrigued me. A matrix barcode bore the caption "Scan below for a personal message from Bill Cooke . . . It's all gonna be alright." Huh? Luckily, I possessed the equipment to scan it and was treated to an innovative use of technology to further narrative and flesh out the world of the play. In the first video Bill Cooke (Sean Williams) and his wife Amelia (Kristen Vaughn) speak from what looks like basement shelter. He wants to address us before "the wireless towers come down and the power runs out." Cooke tells us not to fight or hide from the aliens. "They will kill you if you fight, and you will run out of food if you hide." He instructs people listening to go outside and wait if they heard the aliens coming; they would lead everyone to where they were supposed to go. Cooke or a team member would come by for orientation. Cooke closes by assuring us that everything will be okay.
While absorbing that piece of information, I noted a second message after the first listed as "Last message from Bill Cooke". It begins in the same room as the first with no one on camera. Cooke enters from off frame, making me think that he is alone and recording this without help and/or anyone else's knowledge. "If you're seeing this, then you saw one of my posts." He speaks of hitting up all the social media sites that are still active. Throughout the video, he pauses and looks off camera, listening to odd alien noises. He also mentions regret and sadness that his wife cannot be there with him but recovers and addresses those humans still hiding out. In a matter of days, the power will be gone, and Cooke insists that he made "the right call"; he saved us. But does Cooke believe his own words? The glances off-camera and the empty pauses when he speaks of Amelia say something else. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself and not the remnants of humanity. Then the house lights went up on a scene that may have betrayed his ideals and hopes for humanity.
Blast Radius is the second installment of the Honeycomb Trilogy which began with Advance Man (which I reviewed in NYRSF #283), and the events in this play take place 17 years after the first manned mission to Mars headed by Bill Cooke. Prompted by the waning of Earth's habitability, the astronauts were supposed to terraform Mars for a select few for the survival of the human race. Once there, however, the crew came into contact with a dying race of insectoids who left their own ravaged world in order to survive. The astronauts and aliens made a secret pact for the mutual survival of both races: Cooke's team would bring thirteen larval Honeycomb (the insectoids) to Earth and guarantee their maturity, and in return the aliens would take over the planet and ensure human survival.
In the first play of the trilogy, one of the astronauts, Conor (Jason Howard), during the original mission to Mars, suffered an apparent stroke in an attempt to communicate with the aliens' shared consciousness. Cooke allows a still convalescing Conor to live with his family, while Cooke's wife, Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), nurses him back to health, teaching him to walk and speak. No one realizes that the man Conor died, and an alien consciousness now inhabits his unfamiliar body, cut off from the others of its kind. Cooke's son, Abbie (David Rosenblatt), grows closer to Conor as Amelia begins to piece together what her husband has done. In an attempt to stop the alien hatching, Cooke's daughter Ronnie (Becky Byers) takes a gun with the intent of stopping the plan but can't shoot her brother. He throws the switch. The bugs hatch.
The second play opens to a changed world: the aliens have taken over, killing anyone who resists. They have destroyed all technology, outlawing books, separating families, and forcing humans to work on farms. They exempt only pregnant women from work, and for cultural reasons, the aliens leave them alone. The Cooke home has become a part of Coral Farm and houses these women and a midwife, Shirley (Nancy Sirianni). The living space of pregnant women is considered sacrosanct and creates the perfect place to plan the resistance.
A series of explosions occurs while Ronnie stands watch as Fee (Felicia Hudson) and Shirley help Tash (Amy Lee Pearsall) through a difficult breech birth. Peck (Adam Swiderski), Ronnie's "husband" (the aliens have abolished any permanent human bonds), enters and describes the explosion's aftermath. Tash's spouse has mysteriously blown up from the inside out, and the rebels believe the aliens caused the explosion. Peck leaves as Abbie and Conor arrive with a victim caught in the explosion, Willa (Cotton Wright), who is pregnant and in need of medical attention. Abbie declares the explosions to be the work of rebel bombers. He and Conor offer a compromise: if the resistance stops the bombings, the Honeycomb will reduce the hours of human labor required on the farms. Abbie knows that the resistance is planned from the house and that his sister is one of the leaders. The resistance, however, is not behind the explosions.
The resistance's investigation of the bombing leads them to a substance the aliens have inadvertently allowed to leech into the water supply. Ingesting this "bad water" causes a chemical reaction which turns the human body into a living time bomb. Based on the calculations for the required blast radius, Ronnie conceives of a plan to use 51 volunteers to bring down a Honeycomb in the hopes that others can do the same thing at the remaining sites. In order to do so, she must find volunteers or ruthlessly manipulate others into participating in her plan.
Meanwhile, the woman, Willa, is not what she seems. Her human consciousness has been supplanted by one of the aliens. The Honeycomb, with the help of Conor and Abbie, has planted her in the house to observe and inform on the resistance. Amelia (Kristen Vaughn), who has been allowed to live in the house, is revered as the first human ambassador for her role in helping Conor, but she is also terminally ill. She witnesses Conor helping Willa just as she used to help him and tells him that she knows the truth about Willa. However, Amelia is dying. She berates herself for not seeing what her husband was doing earlier and for the enormous rift between her two children. She dies after extracting a promise from Conor to resolve the conflict between Ronnie and Abbie.
Conor eventually learns from both Willa and Abbie that the Honeycomb plans to strip out and replace human consciousness with their own. Conor is appalled by what he views as genocide and cannot understand why his people would consider such a thing. Abbie is excited that he will finally be one with the Honeycomb, not quite understanding that "he" will cease to exist at all. Conor, who has been in a loving sexual relationship with Abbie for the last 12 years, tries to convince him not to do this but fails. Betrayed by his people and his lover, Conor volunteers to become one of the 51 if Ronnie will protect Abbie and allow what remains of his people to leave Earth.
The 51 volunteers have been painstakingly gathered and the plan is already in motion when Willa takes an opportunity to kill Shirley, one of the 51. Ronnie discovers Shirley's body, and a fight ensues, leaving Willa dead. Now one person short, Ronnie attempts to convince the pregnant Fee to volunteer. Peck gently stops her and Ronnie volunteers herself, but Peck patiently explains that she has to remain to lead the others. He goes instead, leaving Ronnie devastated and bent on revenge. She now has no intention of honoring her agreement with Conor—all the aliens will die. The play closes as she watches from the same window where she witnessed the take-over in Advance Man. This time, however, she watches and waits for the eventual explosion as she calls in the next batch of volunteers.
Every element in the production design reinforced the details of the play—lack of technology, impoverished living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness—and by reusing the set from Advance Man designer Sandy Yalkin preserved the continuity between the two plays. However, changes had come to the house: jungle vegetation crowded the window next to the door, and a window above the stair had a long vine growing through it and down the wall. The set's floor tiling was distressed and covered in grime; water stains marred the walls. The front entrance had been crudely widened with a mismatched door, and dilapidated screening covered a cutout above the door. Later we learn that this was done to accommodate the bodies of the aliens. Tattered and harshly used chairs and a sofa replaced the upper-middle-class furnishings. The couch was replaced by its worn counterpart—clearly patched and repaired over and over. The coffee table was gone, and a homemade lounge chair occupied the far downstage corner. A flimsy cot replaced the dining set at stage right. The corner of the room next to the stairwell contained a rack of homemade weaponry which the characters referred to as "reapers"—marking them as both weapons and (possibly) farming implements. The stage lighting by Jennifer Linn Wilcox, in keeping with the lack of technology in the story, had a dim, hushed, secretive quality. Candles took the place of light bulbs in all the lamps onstage. Candles sat on every available surface and also hung in makeshift metal lanterns. The subdued nature of the lighting highlighted the filthy set, making it seem even more dilapidated. All of the above served as visual reinforcement of the extent to which humanity had succumbed to alien domination.
Costume designer Amanda Jenks chose to utilize extremely worn, slightly ill-fitted clothing, and a few characters had no shoes while others had well used boots. The colors appeared dingy as if the humans could not wash their clothing often enough or had to make do over the years with the only articles of clothing they possessed. Many of the main characters had tears and bloodstains on their clothing revealing them as members of the resistance. In contrast, Abbie and Conor wore clean, well-fitted clothes and shoes even though the colors ran toward grays and browns, marking the better position of the aliens and their human collaborators. Marking a contrast between the two, Conor wore human street clothing embracing his exploration of the human, while Abbie seemed happy with his subjugation wearing a modern take on a medieval serf's attire—loose, wide-sleeved tunic and close, fitted leggings.
Once again, sound played an integral role in making elements of the action palpably present without having to rely on visual presence. The explosions at the beginning of the play and during the resistance's "human test phase" carried a deep bass resonance which could be felt through the seat. In addition to the bombs, sound designer Jeanne E. Travis carried the presence of the aliens through subtle aural hints. Rather than the amplified chewing noises of the aliens hatching in the first play, she chose more "mature" sounds to intimate the full growth of the Honeycomb. The presence of the insectoids was preceded by a whirring reminiscent of huge wings—think of a cicada crossed with the helicopter sound at the beginning of Apocalypse Now—resulting in an ominous offstage presence.
In addition to the set, four characters make the transition between Advance Man and Blast Radius: Ronnie, Cooke's rebellious daughter; Abbie, Cooke's withdrawn, artistic son; Conor, the alien ambassador; and Amelia. In Advance Man, Bill Cooke tells his daughter to keep her instinct to fight because someday it may become a necessity. That necessity 12 years later led her to Coral Farm and her old home. Becky Byers took Ronnie's teen rebellion and turned it into a darker determination to remove the aliens from Earth. This showed in the hard, set lines of her face when she addressed her fellow resistance members and the sneer and derisive tone she reserved for Ronnie's brother. Only when addressing Peck—played by Swiderski with heartbreaking, patient strength—would Byers allow Ronnie to soften and become vulnerable. Byers's distinctive changes in Ronnie gave a great deal of power to the conflict between Peck and Ronnie at the play's climax, just after Shirley's death.
Byers's portrayal of Ronnie created a ruthless leader who readily tried to manipulate others into doing what was needed, and in doing so, she manipulated the audience as well. Tash, the woman whose baby was in breech presentation at the beginning of the play, lost her husband in the play's initial explosion. Later we learn that she lost the baby as well. Ronnie, requesting that Tash return to the house, intends to convince Tash to become a test subject to see if their theory about the "bad water" is correct and to determine the blast radius. Byers subtly allowed us to see Ronnie's deft manipulation of Tash's emotions in order to make her volunteer. She does and although there was a feeling of admiration for her courage, I couldn't help but see Ronnie—as Beyers played her—with a combination of pity and admiration for her strength and untenable position, and with disgust for her methodology.
Another woman at the house, Clem (Alisha Spielman), readily sees through these methods, yet still grudgingly accedes to the need for herself and her husband to sacrifice themselves for the good of mankind. These confrontations allowed Byers to exhibit a sense of surprise—Ronnie never really views her behavior as reprehensible though she acknowledges the untenable position she is in as a leader. After Shirley's death, however, Byers took Ronnie from hysterical despair over the death of a woman she loved like a mother, to panic that the plans will not come off, to finally focusing on pregnant Fee and attempting to manipulate her into taking Shirley's place. Given this sequence and Ronnie's past behavior, Byers left whether Ronnie exhibited genuine remorse or whether she felt that the plan had been ruined ambiguously open ended. Peck stops her, and Byers finally allowed Ronnie to understand the amoral aspects of her deeds, forcing Ronnie to confront the truth—that Peck is the logical replacement. Byers gave Ronnie a courageous front until Peck leaves the stage. At this point, Beyers collapsed in utter agony and despair and took her time with those emotions, giving us her visceral sense of loss. I rarely cry at plays, but Byers brought me very close in this particular scene. Compounding the emotional impact, Byers collected herself to gaze out the "window" and into the audience. Her stance, clenched fists, and set, tear-stained face, punctuated the final words of the play. In reply to Fee asking if she will accede to Conor's conditions and let the aliens leave, Ronnie/Byers coldly replies, "No, we're going to kill them all. Bring in the next group." I was left with an impression of Ronnie's emptiness and determined strength.
In contrast to Ronnie, who has honed her rebellious spirit into a weapon against the Honeycomb, Abbie embraces them, transforming his artistic sensitivity into disdain for his fellow humans. Rosenblatt conveyed Abbie's pity and contempt—with a touch of drunken power—for those humans who have chosen not to collaborate with the Honeycomb by giving the impression of looking down his nose, regardless of his position on stage. He reserved any love he displayed solely for Conor. When discussing his transformation into an alien, Rosenblatt gave Abbie a joyous naïveté in the conviction his loss of human consciousness would leave him and his feelings for Conor unchanged. Conor, however, responds with a palpable, uncomprehending horror. Conor knows differently from his own experience.
Throughout the performance, Jason Howard gave Conor a gravity and respectfulness which never made me think of him as the "enemy." Gone is the barely articulate Conor of Advance Man. His new incarnation possesses a level of fluency in speech and motion, even if he does not yet understand human cultural nuances. Howard's tenderness toward Abbie and the dying Amelia revealed Conor's deeper desire to understand what it is to be human. This earnestness to understand led to amusing moments by playing straight to the humor of the situation—such as reading a cheap romance novel and wondering if the Honeycomb hadn't made a mistake by banning such wonderful material. Another humorous situation involved teaching Willa (played painstakingly and brilliantly straight by Wright) that a human body can be better in some ways. Howard maintained a thoughtful yet practical and nonchalant demeanor while boldly sticking his hand down Wright's shirt and caressing her breasts as she sat and contemplated the action—his demonstration was purely academic. Howard's choices allowed events to lead inevitably to Conor's sense of betrayal—first when Amelia died, and again when he learned that the Honeycomb wished to start a genocide in which Abbie would joyously participate. In another nearly teary scene for me, Howard took a moment in contemplative silence to decide that he would be one of the 51 volunteers. It wasn't the poignant sacrifice or Howard's portrayal of Conor's genuine desire to atone but Byers's portrayal of Ronnie that created an aching empathy. The human characters only ever saw Conor as an alien and not a wounded and betrayed individual.
Rogers's second play in the trilogy continued the intense realism and complex relationships between the characters. The humans exhibited sympathetic elements—such as Ronnie's strength in leading the rebellion and Abbie's sense of isolation and misunderstanding—while at the same time using these to prompt more reprehensible traits like Ronnie's unrepentant manipulation to reach her goals and Abbie's rejection of his humanity. Of all the characters, the most compassionate was Conor. His love of humanity and his curiosity about its "lonely" embodied existence allows him to feel sympathy for their resistance. He, like Bill Cooke in Advance Man, deeply and firmly believes that what he's doing is right. Conor's sense of betrayal by both Abbie and the Honeycomb was perhaps the most poignant aspect of the work.
In my review of Advance Man, I pondered the play's similarities to Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers (1954), and these observations remain valid for the second play. Like the Martians, the Honeycomb are exiles from a dying planet who find themselves now on Earth. There remains a conflict between at least one alien, Conor, who sees the possibilities in working with the humans, and the remainder of his race who merely want to eradicate the human problem. With the knowledge that Conor sacrifices himself as atonement and to make a statement to the others of his kind, there is the question of whether there are other aliens of like mind. We don't know. The similarities between Pangborn's Angelo and Abbie continue as well. Like Angelo, Abbie represents a possible key (good or bad) to human survival. His reaction to his sister's actions and Conor's self-sacrifice remain to be seen.
Blast Radius brings up another theme often explored in sf—the human infatuation with the alien Other. In particular I'm reminded of "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1972) by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree's focus is on "supernormal stimulus" specifically—a stimulus that prompts a stronger response than instinct warrants. In the story, a space station worker recounts his "perverse" desires to be with aliens—particularly his sexual response—to a journalist who is just beginning his own obsession with aliens. Abbie's connection with the Honeycomb in general and Conor specifically mirrors this. While Abbie's interest in Conor is both emotional and sexual, a scene between Abbie and Ronnie makes it clear that Abbie's desire to be closer to the aliens is largely emotional. He wants to shed the feeling of being socially and emotionally isolated, and the merest glimpse of oneness he gets while lying in the hive is enough to convince him to shed his humanity and opt to become Other.
Again, Rogers illustrates that sf doesn't have to be carried through special effects. The sound of explosions, the gritty nuances of the set and costumes all play toward an understanding of how everyday life has changed. Sound propels the science-fictional elements to the fore in Advance Man, but in Blast Radius Rogers, like Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein, provides rich details of this future world through matter-of-fact conversations. He doesn't opt for or require vast amounts of exposition. Conor's thrill over sharing a passage of a trashy romance novel as the most wonderful thing he's ever read gives a brief laugh, but Abbie responds that if Conor were going to go against the Honeycomb's banning of books, couldn't he have picked a really good piece of literature? Further, we see in the set a lack of technology, but in the opening scene where Shirley is attempting to turn a breeched baby, we understand the beginnings of the divide between humanity before the Honeycomb and the reality of Blast Radius. The young pregnant woman, Tash, might not remember when technology could have delivered her baby safely, prompting Shirley to briefly comment that once they could have simply performed a C-section as Tash bites down on a stick against the pain.
For me, the most compelling element was reminiscent of C. J. Cherryh's socio-cultural/anthropological material from works such as her Foreigner, Faded Sun, and Chanur series. Rogers's choice to base the resistance in a house specifically for pregnant women gives a glimpse into the Honeycomb as a race without the onstage presence of aliens beyond Conor and Willa. Pregnant women are sacrosanct—"the house of the Queen is sacred." This sentiment is repeated by Conor and Willa. Further, we come to understand that the notion of live birth disturbs the aliens. Willa, in a troubling but humorous exchange with Conor, declares that she does not want to give birth. The alien inhabiting Willa finds the notion unsettling—she's explored the openings involved and cannot see how it's possible.
There are, however, two specific moments that interrupted my immersion in the play, both of which hark back to critics' complaints about sf on the stage. The first occurs in a scene involving Jimmy (Joe Mathers) and Dev (Seth Shelden), two men who have fathered children with Fee and Clem. Both are drug-smoking, likeable screw-ups. Mathers gives a grudgingly endearing stupidity to a character that just doesn't quite get the situation beyond being able to screw women without worrying about family obligations. Dev requires a slightly more subtle touch. Dev messes up because he needs to forget that he can't be with Clem and his children. A good man lurks under his foolish surface, and Shelden deftly gives glimpses of the pain and desperate desire to make things right lying within Dev. These two have gotten high and opportunistically attacked and killed a wounded alien. Displaying a severe lack of judgment, they rip off one of its legs and bring it to Coral Farm, ostensibly to show off for the two girls, Ronnie, and Peck. The alien leg is a reasonable fabrication of an exoskeletal leg complete with a ligament flopping around the severed end. Even so, it's obviously fake, and this yanked me out of the world that the human/alien interactions had sucked me into. However, the scene is patently a moment of comic relief, and the obviousness of the fake leg does serve to make it even funnier. So is it bad sf on stage or a good reinforcement of a comic moment? I'm torn.
The second objection involves an ongoing issue faced by many performances and is not exclusive to sf: how to realistically and reliably perform stage combat in a small theatre space. In part of the climax involving Willa, a fight ensues. First, Willa attacks and kills Shirley. Ronnie then has to defend against and eliminate Willa. As I've mentioned before, realistic stage combat is hard (NYRSF #260) but not impossible (NYRSF #273). The actors have to be able to physically "sell" the action in addition to providing good cover (a theatrical term meaning they aren't actually knocking the snot out of each other). This is made exponentially more difficult in a small space where the audience practically sits in your lap. It just doesn't work well enough here.
But even with these flaws, the Honeycomb Trilogy still represents a compelling approach to staging science fiction. Theatre in the last decade has faced interrogations similar to those of written sf. While scholars and writers have questioned the utility of sf as a narrative of the future in a present that is already futuristic, theatre scholars and practitioners have been faced with the question of theatre versus performance and whether there can be any vital expression of new/radical performance. Performance theorist Baz Kershaw in The Radical in Performance: Between Brecht and Baudrillard (1999) ponders how theatre can maintain itself as vital socio-political commentary given a culture saturated in media which itself is performative.
Rogers's deft alchemy in combining sf with realism results in a way for theatre to enter the larger conversation sf has enjoyed with socio-cultural and political issues. Melding sf novums and narratives with a more traditional theatrical realism, he simultaneously expands the traditional subject matter of the theatre (and performative potentiality) and uses the more traditional theatrical realism to provide a framework. The result is a gritty exploration of issues often excluded from theatrical conversation for being too abstract or too reliant upon special effects/technology—but that's not to say that they aren't possible.
I still maintain that special effects aren't necessary in staging sf and often just get in the way, but that doesn't mean that technology cannot be used to enrich the performance. That matrix barcode in the program provides the perfect example of unobtrusively utilizing technology to flesh out the world of the play and as a result the performance as well—it's a special effect, and yet it isn't. Directly addressed by Bill Cooke, I became part of the reality with a decision to submit or resist (for the record I would absolutely resist alien bug domination). No, I didn't see CGI aliens—though the disturbing sounds were evident—but the homemade video and the references to social media are used to create a science-fictional special effect.
So with two down and one to go in Rogers's Honeycomb Trilogy, I have to agree with Bill Cooke (in terms of science fiction's future in the theatre)—"It's all gonna be alright [sic]."
Jen Gunnels lives on a throne made of back issues.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.