It’s so fast

Last night I went to see Speed of Light, the second play of Quantum Dragon Theatre’s inaugural season, and I’m going to go ahead and recommend it to anyone who’s ever stayed up late reading science fiction, or hungered for the next book. 33a8a9_2426413a0954409094334377f699489d-mv2

I’m saying book because the play reminded me an awful lot of classic SF novels. It has an old-school feel to it, like pre-transistor Heinlein stories. I’d bet serious money that Frank Herbert’s Dune was an influence on the playwright, too.

Speed of Light is set at least 5,000 years into the future, where humanity has spread to five planets and settled there long enough to develop racial distinctions between them. Two of those planets have now fallen to the Feeders, a mindless alien horde that devours all it encounters.

How, exactly, a mindless horde operates spaceships is never explored, and we may well be the victims of propaganda on just how mindless they really are. In a novel I’d expect some more exposition on that, but in a two-hour play I’m perfectly willing to let it slide, especially since there’s already a lot going on in here.

You see, traveling faster than light had been assumed to be impossible for thousands of years, up until people saw the Feeders do it. It then immediately became very important to figure out how it’s done, because the aliens are attacking a third planet and show no signs that they’ll go away after it’s been stripped of all life. Our story follows a mathematical prodigy who’s spent the last ten years working on this problem, and the people around her.

And the thing is, it’s not the spaceships or the aliens that drive this story, it’s the people. The themes of Speed of Light are appropriate for any genre; greed, prejudice, religion, drug addiction, and the human tendency to deny and ignore impending threats. This is a story of searching for a solution in the face of an alien invasion, but it just as easily could have been about climate change, or the San Franciscan’s bad habit of not staying prepared for a major earthquake.

It’s very human.

There are no classic villains here, but there are definitely the sort of everyday assholes you’ve definitely encountered in life. The kind who will save your life but steal your patent, for example. The Feeders aren’t villains, incidentally, they’re not really an enemy, but more a force of nature. A hurricane, a volcano, something that needs to be prepared for and dealt with as best as possible.

Characters generally had very little backstory given, but there were lots of little touches that hinted at great depth. I particularly liked a sudden rundown of Kip’s hidden depths, because while it never really matters to the story it’s totally consistent with her.

Beyond the story, there are lots and lots of little touches that are easy to miss. Discussing the show with friends afterwards it turned out that I was the only one who caught the reference to a war against artificial intelligence in the distant past, which means that two-thirds of our party were wondering why there weren’t more computers.

 

The planets in the show are Nerth (clearly a contraction of New Earth), Old Earth, Kantis, and two whose names I couldn’t hold on to. Really, I only got Kantis because it was mentioned on the QDT site somewhere. I wish I could see the name of Mayra’s homeworld written down somewhere, all I’ve got is that it started with a V sound.

The Orderlings remind me of both the Bene Gesserit and the Mentats from Dune, which I’m sure is deliberate. The makeup even subtly invokes movie versions of them.

Speaking of subtle visual references, is it just a coincidence that General Valki Oveyna, played by Celeste Conowitch, reminded me of General Celes from Final Fantasy VI?

Performance-wise there were a few rough spots. The odd flubbed line here or there. Nothing terribly damning, but I thought many of the interactions between Tony Cirimele, Dave Sikula, and GreyWolf felt forced and stiff. This is especially noticeable in what I found to be the weakest scene in the show, when Cirimele and Sikula’s characters get into a fight in a display of empty machismo straight out of the 1950’s.

Come to think of it, Tony Cirimele’s character Frey Pevenzy is kind of a 1950’s cliche to begin with, so maybe I’m being too hard on them.

Speaking of 1950’s cliches, there are no black people in the distant future. Ordinarily I probably wouldn’t even notice this in a play with a cast of seven, but since racial prejudice is a major theme it kind of stuck out.

The core of the show is the character Mayra (played by Becky Raeta) and her interactions with the other characters, particularly Tazmen (Sikula), Frey (Cirimele) and Kip (Marisa Darabi). Becky Raeta is simply amazing as the tortured genius Mayra, and she carries a few parts of the play singlehandedly, particularly the bits that occur only in Mayra’s mind. Mayra’s confidence in her math is absolute, while her deep vulnerability is also a driving force in the plot, and she is reliant on Frey and the much put-upon Kip for almost everything outside of her work.

Kip is an interesting character, too. She’s repeatedly hinted to be much more than meets the eye, and probably knows more about what’s going on than any two other characters. She’s probably the most self-reliant of them all, the one who could do the most on her own, and yet there she is as the assistant. Constantly put-upon and put-down, even as everyone relies on her.

I’ll take a quick moment to mention Casey Spiegel’s character Nevik Kier, who is mostly referred to as the Orderling Envoy. A quiet, reserved engineer-priest who is potentially a tragic hero in his own right, though we don’t get to see that story.

Despite (or perhaps because of) how much is packed into it, this show is very tightly directed. In fact the only thing that really feels like a wasted scene is the one I mentioned above, the machismo fight. Lest you think I’m harping on that scene too much, I’ll point out that the most substantial criticisms I can think of all come back to that one bit: Motiveless antagonism just to lead to a fight, a plot-irrelevant fight that takes too long to do its job of minor character development, Frey being cartoonishly dumb when he’s just a little dense for the entire rest of the story. It’s attempting to give us a snapshot of multiple character relationships at once, but it felt ham-handed and over the top; it could have been reduced to a much shorter interaction, a quick argument that would accomplish the same thing in less time while feeling more natural.

That probably stands out even more because most of it was so good; I can’t think of anything else in the play that wasn’t there for a clear purpose in the story, and after that weak spot the pace is excellent and there’s a great efficiency to the structure of things.

Overall, this is a good show, and good science fiction. It’s deep, it’s human, and it’s exploring themes and problems we face here in the real world from an imaginative setting. The characters are complex and interesting, and I always felt like there was a lot more to everything than what we saw. Like there was a mountain of backstory hidden behind every line of throwaway exposition. At one point it’s mentioned that teleportation has “been done”, and I kept turning over the implications and wonder what the story is, there.

It’s playing at the Mojo Theater in San Francisco, and only runs until September 10th, so see it while you still can!

This is only the second production by Quantum Dragon Theatre, but they’ve clearly set a high bar for themselves in terms of quality. I was thinking about this last night, and I realized that while QDT may be a (or possibly the only) theater company focused on science fiction and fantasy productions, the real strength of the company is their minimalism.

They have a seriously impressive aptitude for producing complex and powerful stories using next to nothing. Speed of Light takes place entirely in one room, and their first offering, Civil, had no sets at all. In fact I don’t recall any props beyond the very simple costumes the actors wore, and yet I was thinking about it for a long time trying to tease out all the details.

Sam Tillis, the artistic director of Quantum Dragon, has shown a good eye for scripts that can be done well with the company’s resources. I might very well come back to see Speed of Light again, to try to pick up any little bits that I missed the first time, but I will definitely be there for the next play Spell Eternity, coming this Winter.

I’ll leave you with what I said as I walked out for intermission, right after hearing the phrase I chose as the title for this post, “That was intense.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on August 28, 2016, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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