The earth has become so overrun with trash that people have left in search of new worlds to junk. Only a few are left behind to sort though the trash and build things out of it, isolated until a visitor comes from the stars in search of life on earth.
This isn’t the latest Pixar flick WALL-E, although that’s one of many comparisons that Liz Duffy Adams’ play The Listener invites. The dying-out denizens of Junk City have specific roles: Finders find junk, Namer names the junk, Jimmies find uses for the junk, and Listener sits at her radio to see if there’s anyone else out there. When someone comes from the New Earth colony on the moon to see whatever happened to the people left behind, it both shakes up this social order and provides someone to explain it to.
Visitor John is a perfect audience surrogate. He even talks exactly like us, never mind how many centuries have passed. But he’s scarcely needed for exposition, because characters explain themselves to themselves when no one else is around. This is a play that leaves little room for misunderstanding, and even less room for plot. Adams weaves in many tantalizing threads that are left dangling in favor of explicating the premise. Most curiously, Listener’s ongoing quest to find others hardly seems affected by the discovery that there many, many others living on the moon. These are not the others she is looking for.
The company that’s staging the world premiere production at Traveling Jewish Theatre and Ashby Stage, Crowded Fire has a history with Adams, having worked with her on The Train Play in 2003 and the commissioned world premiere of One Big Lie in 2005. So does director (and co-artistic director) Kent Nicholson, whose Shotgun Players production of Adams’ Dog Act won a 2004 Glickman Award for best play to debut in the Bay Area.
Dog Act explored a similar post-apocalyptic future, and The Listener suffers in comparison. In the former, the past calamity was left deliberately vague, and Adams created a playful, remarkably well fleshed out futuristic dialect that spoke volumes about the society that was left. The Listener takes every opportunity to explain exactly what happened and how things work now, and otherwise modern English is peppered with fake cuss words like the ones on Battlestar Galactica. A tangled theology conflating Uncle Sam with the book of Genesis and a goofy pantheon of minor deities including Oprah, Madonna, Britney, and Elvis is reminiscent of a ’60s Star Trek episode that involved a primitive society worshipping a badly mangled version of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The play’s ultimately a wispy thing overloaded with exposition, but Nicholson gives it a strong production that brings out its many strengths along the way. Melpomene Katakalos’ set is a marvelous assemblage of rubbish repurposed into shacks and machines. Cole Alexander Smith is refreshingly down-to-earth as John, maintaining a grim sense of humor in the worst of circumstances. Given the majority of the neologisms, the guttersnipe Finders are played gamely by Michael Moran and Rami Margron, who had a similar but beefier part in Dog Act. More articulate by necessity, Lawrence Radecker’s Namer aptly captures the feel of a high priest as desperate charlatan, and Juliet Tanner has an intriguing abstract ethereality as Listener. The robotic regularity of her SOS radio litany is haunting.
San Leandro Players has an easier time with its sci-fi production Earth vs. Altair, Queen of Outer Space! Written and directed by Daniel Dickinson, originally for an Orinda high school production, the sci-fi comedy pays tribute to ’50s B movies much like the cult film The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra did. It’s an ingenious selection for a small community theater, because a few awkward performances (intentional or otherwise) are very much in the spirit of an Ed Wood homage.
Dickinson’s play is chock full of pseudo-scientific jargon, cheeseball hyperbole, and amusing non sequiturs, with some great throwaway gags such as a military chart showing silhouettes of various spacecraft, each labeled “weather balloon” except for an actual weather balloon categorized as “swamp gas.”
Reprising his role from the Holden High production, Harold Hardin II is hilariously campy as Altair’s swishy overseer Prilosec. Other standouts include Judah Keller-Laub as amusingly bombastic narrator Criswell, Zack Scott as alpha male pilot Craig, and Terry Guillory as needy space dominatrix Altair.
The inventive staging seats the audience in a spiral in the center of the room with the performance taking place on all sides, complete with Flash Gordon-style costumes and an aluminum-foil-covered spaceship. It lacks the polish and pedigree of The Listener, but that just makes it easier to focus on what’s best in both plays — and is sci-fi theater’s strong point — which is as whimsical, lightweight fun.