Monday, November 16, 2015

Make Plays, Not War

When I signed up for a seven-hour marathon of theater in a church gym about bugs taking over the earth, the last thing I expected was it to be relevant to current events - or that it would give me hope for humankind.

But that's what happened when I attended closing night of the crazy-genius Honeycomb Trilogy by the promising playwright Mac Rogers.

The night before, ISIS had wreaked terror in Paris, killing over 100 people, and I had to wake at 4:15am the day of the plays to go in to CNN to produce an hour of live coverage anchored by Michael Smerconish as the (heart-)breaking news still was developing. It's what CNN does best but you wish it never had to do it.

It was one of those seat-of-the-pants broadcasts where behind the scenes guests kept being moved in and out of slots as different technology glitches and availabilities shifted underfoot - and the writing for the teleprompter was often still wet when Smerconish was reading it.

Amanpour on the cene with Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman
Right before the gifted Christiane Amanpour went on the air live with the deputy mayor of Paris, someone in the control room suddenly wondered aloud: "He's going to speak English, right?" Luckily he did. (Looking at the playback now (right), I see we had the wrong clock code on the screen, showing NY time instead of Paris.)

Smerconish did a great job - even booking two of the guests himself the night before while on a Stairmaster - and pushing back when guest Mike Huckabee turned the actions of ISIS against all natives of the countries where it's housed. Afterwards we all went home to nap.

But I had to wake up to get to the first of the three plays, which started at 2pm  My girlfriend and I had first heard the plays touted by a Facebook friend who works in theater, and I then read the Times review by Alexis Soloski, whose taste I trust.
an exhilarating D.I.Y. saga at the Gym at Judson, imagines an Earth subjugated by an apian race. Over the course of these ambitious dramas, which you can and should see in a marathon showing, a Florida family introduces, abets and opposes these insectoid overlords, the People of the Honeycomb.
It certainly promised to be unlike anything I had seen in decades of New York theatergoing - half of the curiosity was how the hell they would pull it off on a single set.

Just before heading into the theater on Washington Square South, we noticed that groups had assembled in the park to memorialize the killings in Paris, and a French flag had been hung in the Arch (which Stanford White had modeled on Paris's Arc De Triomphe.) (right). 

How homespun an experience were we in for? The person behind the lockbox checking off our names from the ticketbuyers list was the playwright himself.
Scene from Advance Man, the first play in the Honeycomb Trilogy 
The set was a drab American living room, and the large, committed cast totally was attuned to Rogers' witty and lively scenario  The plot involves a group of astronauts who return to Earth from Mars
disillusioned enough with their mission and its purposes to welcome a hive of bug creatures who hatch and eventually take over earthlings' bodies. It turns out that one of the astronauts who is behaving like a stroke victim has a lot more going on. From the moment they figure out what's going on, the daughter and son of the lead astronaut take opposite sides in the battle for who will dominate earth going forward.

Between the first and second plays, when we stepped outside for fresh air, we discussed how eerily prescient the playwright's view was about how Isis perceives itself and what havoc has ensued -- and we saw that the Arch had been "painted" with colored lights to mimic the French flag.

For the second play, taking place years later, the same set had been transformed - sort of like the Clybourne Park living room set change between acts -- into a post-takeover hideout for the rebels led by the daughter., where pregnant women take refuge to give birth away from the aliens, who have enslaved earthlings.

Scene from the second play, "Blast Radius"
The first act was a little wobbly, and I worried that we were in for a long night But it ended up totally involving as the drama unfolded about who is "right" about the future of the planet, and how people behave given the choice to let an invasive species co exist or not. (Amazingly, the only sign of an actual giant bug we ever see in seven hours is a severed leg, and it doesn't diminish the reality they've created.)

When we went outside for dinner before the finale, we were completely enmeshed in Rogers' vision, all the more potent for what had been happening in the real world vis a vis immigrants.  In the third play, more years have passed and the brother and sister are portrayed by older actors. One is in power and the other is the rebel leader. Both are right, both are wrong, and they wrestle with the conflicts that have torn their family and their world apart.  It was by far the best written of the three plays and the vision became clear, but it wouldn't have had the impact without sitting through the first two.
Hannah Cheek and Stephen Heskett in "Sovereign"
As we walked out into the night, we discussed how this is exactly the kind of nuanced art that is the antithesis of the world that the primitivist warrirors of ISIS are trying to create with terrorist acts, and which they probably wouldn't understand if they were forced to sit through it. But it's what makes the rest of us humans and why we have to give it up for Rogers and his cast and crew -- and all artists who help us try to figure this all out.  It is a pure expression of the opposite of terrorism.

As we walked out from the final play at 10:30pm, wiped out, the transformation of the Arch was complete. And it mirrored the trilogy's own arc of triumph over the forces of ignorance and simplemindedness.
playwright Mac Rogers





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