Reviewed By Jara Jones
Elliptical galaxy NGC 1316, a solar system streaked with trails of ancient cosmic dust, highly suggests a violent past of having absorbed and discarded another collection of planetary bodies. This play suggests that human misery, much like brute physics, is unavoidable and that only through community and messy growth can we possibly heal ourselves. While this production is lavishly designed and performed with compelling honesty, the lack of focus in its script and direction mars its many touching moments.
At the Washington Science Museum in DC, a tribe of employees and their supervisor are forced to ask themselves: What happens when a fixation on the methodology of the material world is upended by a random, bloody act? It’s a gorgeous question. To avoid spoilers, I assert that the playwright waters down the conversation with a shoehorned traumatic event. Especially one that’s pretty difficult to pull off in 2015, let alone today (see for yourself – try walking into the Museum of Natural History or the Met with a backpack and not have it immediately surrendered, checked, and tagged) Also, based on the personal struggles of each of the characters, we’re already witnessing them in the grip of suffering before the aforementioned horrific act takes place. Vadim (played with an aching, smiling heart by Jason C Brown) is saddled with caring for his dying father, while stuffing down any open examination of his identity. Jo (capably portrayed by Robin Galloway) musters up a devil-may-care sensibility while pining deeply for the chance to give birth to a child. Chet (Dominic F Russo in a wheedling, yet engaging and fragile turn) is starved for companionship, feeling pressured to do well in college and finds himself unable to savor what awards he’s been given. Claire (Becca Schneider, giving a master class on simplicity and presence, which is no small feat based on what little the script provides her – the less said about the sudden addition of a ludicrous lime-green ragdoll wig, the better) is itchy in her own skin, doubting her heart, her life’s path.
See these stories? On their own, they’re more than enough to inhabit the play’s themes. There’s a scene just before a major plot twist, where Claire, Chet, and Vadim are putting on a science puppet show for the museum, a perfect alignment of direction, scripting, character development, and truth. I wish the play was brave enough to remain in that world, where we could still reflect upon these real and heartfelt concerns, instead of cheapening it with ripped-from-the-headlines affairs which feel less like an organic, natural choice honoring the characters and more like a desire to pontificate about current events. The talking points the playwright so earnestly wishes to address would have far been better served taking place in a school, or filtered through the all too familiar brutality of unchecked aggression within the police system.
The details within a show are what separate true storytellers from disjointed artists. While the set design, projections, and ambient music (kudos to Tim McMath, Yana Birÿkova, and Jerzy Jung respectively) clearly show passion and a key attention to detail, there’s quite a few choices that the playwright, director, and actors make which undercut their hard work. Any former West Coast resident can tell you that In-N-Out Burger can’t be found east of Texas, let alone in Washington, DC. The use of the office vending machine as a bellwether of life out of balance gets played with far too much to hold impact. Having Jo’s character reconcile her stress and anxiety with an absurd and grotesque depiction of stealing things feels hollow, and it should have been handled with much better care. Finally, the existence and usage of practical set pieces like office lockers, could have been immersive as a way to distinguish characters in fun and eloquent ways (what sort of stickers would be on the outside of Chet’s locker? Does Vadim have a padlock or a combo lock? What pigeon-killing makeshift methods does Eloise have hidden in her space?) Instead, almost all the actors open and discard items from only the top middle locker, which defies reason and takes one immediately out of the play.
There’s two additional performances I’d like to single out as reasons you must see this show: Jo Yang (playing a recent widow, a grief counselor, and a mother burdened with mental health issues) endows every line, every role with gravity and precision. I wished the play could have used more opportunities to let this actor shine. Lastly, Olivia Oguma (Eloise) as the super-intense, tree-house living champion of the earth is a rare combination of diverting, effortless comic skill and stoic vulnerability. Her work in the final monologue, as she continues to lean upon science and interplanetary discovery in an effort to drum up a gram of hope made me tremble (where not a single broad gesture of grief or angst (often in the form of Viewpoints-based tableaus) from the other actors failed to affect me). Oguma’s captivating, gentle strength is the production’s greatest asset.
Cannibal Galaxy: A Love Story is produced by Between Two Boroughs and runs until June 17th at The New Ohio (154 Christopher St.) http://www.betweentwoboroughs.com/upcoming/