As Sir Isaac Newton might have said “A body at rest on the couch surfing Netflix tends to remain on that couch unless acted upon by an external force.” And so it seems that theater audiences are not completely back to pre-pandemic levels. Now it’s true that at the Shaw Festival, which has a large U.S. following, seemingly intelligent people were flummoxed by the “ArriveCan” requirements, which are now gone. And everywhere else? Well, you can’t shut down for two years and then wave a magic wand and get back to pre-pandemic levels. What to do?
As Walt Whitman actually did say: “The public is a thick-skinned beast and you have to keep whacking away on its hide to let it know you are there.” So, in the spirit of old Walt, let me whack away about three shows at smaller venues that deserve a second look.
Here are the three: Last weekend First Look Buffalo opened with FUTURE WARS: A SCI-FI DOUBLE FEATURE at the Park School on Harlem Road in Snyder. Meanwhile, O’Connell & Company (which used to be at the Park School) opens with THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL at a newly renovated venue on Bailey Avenue. And, downtown at Shea’s Smith Theatre (where O’Connell & Company still appears from time to time), Second Generation Theatre is presenting the beloved THE SECRET GARDEN. Confused? Don’t be. Read on.
FUTURE WARS: A SCI-FI DOUBLE FEATURE features two play premieres about AI, or Artificial Intelligence and the plays are RESET, a new play by Samantha Macher and OVERLAY, a new play by Adam Hahn, both presented by First Look Buffalo. They opened last weekend and run through October 29, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm, at The Park School Theatre, 4625 Harlem Rd, Amherst, NY 14226 firstlookbuffalo.com (716) 771-6358. Plenty of off-street parking. After bouncing around town at various venues, I hope that they have found a home.
It’s been said that all science fiction can be boiled down to two plots: “we go there; they come here.” But there’s a whole other branch of science fiction with two other competing narratives and they are these two: we enhance humans to be more like robots (think of the movie “RoboCop”) or we make robots more like humans (think of the movie “Blade Runner” featuring “replicants” made by the Tyrell Corporation whose slogan is “more human than human”).
RESET, directed by Mike Doben, shows us the latter in a future where machines or robots are made sentient and can have feelings and independent thoughts, just like humans. As the play opens we see two soldiers. Alex (played by Jacob Applegate) is lying on the ground with wires sticking out from where his feet should be. Behind a bombed-out wall is Jacob (drew McCabe), another robot soldier, who keeps up a steady conversation with Alex, often reminding him to “reset,” (which seemed similar to a computer reboot) to get Alex back online so that the rest of the military team, the humans, will be able to find them. It’s not sure whether the military code of leaving no soldier behind will apply to robots. But they hope it will. And that’s sort of touching.
The Alex character reminded me of the character Ash in the 1979 movie “Alien,” whose severed head is brought back online temporarily. You can see Ian Holm in that moment here.
But this topic – machines becoming human – has long been a fascination with writers whether it’s the ballet “Coppelia” where a boy falls in love with an “automaton” or Stephen Vincent Benet’s “Nightmare Number Three” where the machines think for themselves and turn on us, or Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (that became “Blade Runner”).
So this is familiar territory, but two things that make RESET so compelling to me are that it’s set in “a foreign country with a big desert” making it a very timely play whether you relate it to Afghanistan or Iraq or any other “sandbox.” And because all the coverage of those conflicts has evoked our sympathy for our troops in those situations, these robots become sympathetic characters. My only two complaints are that the play felt a little long which wasn’t helped by the overly loud music and sound effects. In a small theater with a smaller audience, it was too much.
The play that I can’t stop talking about is the second one of the Sci-fi double feature (after a short intermission) and that’s OVERLAY directed by Drew McCabe.
But the play that I can’t stop talking about is the second one of the Sci-fi double feature (after a short intermission) and that’s OVERLAY directed by Drew McCabe. There are several aspects to the story, but one that fascinates me is that, in the future, when humans are asked to do horrific jobs, they can be made palatable if those humans have their senses “overlayed” by an artificial reality. In other words, we can make humans more like robots by giving them, not a physically protective vest, say, but a psychologically protective cover.
And the more we learn about PTSD this concept seemed appealing to me. So if you’ve been sent in to a war zone, or to clean up after a bombing, or a mass shooting, the AI or VR “overlay” can make you believe that you aren’t picking up human fingers, say, but rather baby crabs on a sunny beach. But what happens if you suddenly get a glimpse of reality? Or what happens when your “overlay” images start to blend with reality, and you don’t know what is real and what is overlay?
That’s where the handler comes in. In this case the character Kayla (Madeleine Allard-Dugan) who is expert at feigning understanding followed by presenting an alternate possibility for the subject’s unhappiness. In a way, it’s a variation of the old salesperson’s “FEEL-FELT-FOUND” formula to handle customer objections: “I understand how you feel. I felt the same way myself. But I found that….”
I think that anyone who has put on a pair of VR goggles will relate to this play. I highly recommend it.
Opening tonight are two plays by companies older than First Look.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL, by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa, directed by Dewayne Barrett, musical direction by Joe Isgar, presented by O’Connell & Company, promised to star Joey Bucheker as Gomez Addams, Anna Fernandez as Morticia Addams, Michael J. Galante as Uncle Fester, Madalyn Teal as Wednesday Addams, Jared Eichel as Lucas Beineke, Sara Kovacsi as Grandma, John Perno as Pugsley Addams, Dan Mink as Lurch, Kelliegh Murray as Alice Beineke, and Michael Starzynski as Mal Beineke. It runs from October 14 to October 30, Fridays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm. There’s an additional matinee at 3:00 pm on Saturday 10/22. NOTE THE NEW LOCATION! O’Connell & Company, 4110 Bailey Ave., Amherst, NY 14226 in the Eggertsville Youth & Community Center (a few blocks “downhill” or north of Main Street and about 500 feet south of Bocce Pizza). 716-848-0800. www.oconnellandcompany.com
The show’s publicity promises that “The magnificently morbid family is put to the test when outsiders come to dinner, hurling them into a night that will change their lives forever. Everything will change for the whole family on the fateful night they host a dinner for Wednesday’s ‘normal’ boyfriend and his parents.” Again, NOTE NEW LOCATION for O’Connell & Company at 4110 Bailey Ave., Amherst, NY 14226.
THE SECRET GARDEN: Spring Version, also opens tonight, held over from the pandemic, and it’s adapted from the musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, directed and choreographed by Michael Oliver-Walline with music direction by Allan Paglia, presented by Second Generation Theatre, starring Ella Hinklin (Mary), Clark Garvey (Colin), Louis Colaiacovo (Archibald), Kelly Copps (Lily), John Panepinto (Neville), Amy Jakiel (Martha), Joe Russi (Dickon), Anne DeFazio (Mrs. Medlock), John Kreuzer (Ben), and an ensemble featuring Leah Berst, Bob Mazierski, Jenn Stafford, Collin McKee, Anthony Lazzaro, Maria Pedro, Jenny Marie McCabe, and Charles McGregor. It runs from tonight, October 14 to October 30, Thursdays – Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm. It’s at the Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street, Buffalo NY 14202. Tickets at (716)508-7480 or sheas.org/performances/the-secret-garden. Information and virtual playbill at secondgenerationtheatre.com.
The story is set in the early years of the 20th century. Mary Lennox, an English girl born and raised in the British Raj, is orphaned by a cholera outbreak when she is ten years old. She is sent away from India to the moors of Yorkshire, England, to live in the manor of a brooding uncle she has never met. There, her personality blossoms among the other residents of the manor as they bring new life to a long-neglected garden. This version runs under two hours, keeping the heart and spirit of the original story in a format that better suits young audiences.
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