Friday, April 06, 2012

Blast Radius

Amy Lee Pearsall, Becky Byers, Alisha
Spielmann, Nancy Sirianni,
and Felicia Hudson
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Many years ago, a friend of mine was extolling the virtues of ants versus humans, whom she found selfish. "If ants come to water," she said, "the first ones make a bridge out of their bodies so the others can scurry over. And if one or two float away and drown, it's okay, because it's the group that's important." I asked her, "If you were in that situation, and your girlfriend floated away, would you hold onto the bridge or go after her?" She didn't hesitate one second: "I'd go after her." "Oh," I said, "you'd make a lousy ant."

In Mac Rogers' Blast Radius, the entire human race is faced with the choice between sometimes-selfish human individualism and homogenous one-mind unity when a race of giant insects takes over earth and destroys all that humans have achieved, enslaving most people, forbidding books, and generally forcing humanity backward. Ronnie (the fierce Becky Byers), daughter of the astronaut who brought the insects to earth, despises them and never stops fighting for freedom, while her brother Abbie (David Rosenblatt) falls in love with their cozy hive mind. To complicate matters, Abbie is sexually and romantically involved with the insects' ambassador (the ever-amazing Jason Howard), who has taken over a human body. (It's interesting that Rogers gives the siblings ambiguous names; it would be easy to assume that Ronnie is the male and Abbie is the female. This fits, since Ronnie takes on the traditionally male role of leading the resistance, while it is Abbie who wants nothing more than a giant family.)

The plot of Blast Radius is compelling and absorbing, and I don't want to reveal too much here. Suffice to say that Rogers manages to tell a fascinating story; introduce a range of vividly etched characters; provoke thoughts about humanity, bravery, identity, values, relationships, and procreation; elicit some tears; and be quite funny. It's an impressive feat. (Blast Radius is part 2 of the "Honeycomb Trilogy." To read about part 1, Advance Man, go here.)

A few of Rogers' ideas/questions particularly intrigued me. For example, when is it better to compromise and when is it better to fight? Shirley (Nancy Sirianni, wonderful as always) has been active in the resistance for years, but she believes that it might be worth compromising with the insects to lessen the workdays of the human slaves. In contrast,  Ronnie feels that compromise is the same as surrender. During their argument, I found myself thinking of Booker T. Washington versus Martin Luther King, Jr, versus Malcolm X and how they differed on that very point.

And, what makes a good leader? For years movies have taught us that the leader is the tallest and best-looking white guy in the room, and that people will and should follow him automatically. But Rogers gives us Ronnie, a small, young, sometimes-selfish woman who wheedles, cajoles, begs, and whines and who has to earn her leadership over and over again. Why do people keep following her? Because she is smart and passionate--and an expert manipulator.

And, what makes us human? In Blast Radius, the answers include love, sex, and the written word, which seem to me to be excellent answers (Abbie, with his love of the hive mind, disagrees, saying that humans are limited to "extraordinary effort to achieve split-seconds of connection.")

Rogers' clear fascination with the meaning of humanity is superbly well-served by Jason Howard. In Rogers' magnificent Universal Robots, Howard played a robot who gradually grows human; in Advance Man and here, he plays an insect who does the same. On one hand, these are similar ideas; on the other, Rogers' writing and Howard's acting are so exact, so thoughtful, so smart, and so compassionate that the characters stand as unique--and individually brilliant--creations.

The show isn't perfect. It takes a while for it to catch fire, and some of the plotting is hard to follow. Some of the performances are a little weak. The fight scenes aren't particularly effective, and there's a slap that could win a prize for worst stage slap ever. There's a giant insect leg straight out of a bad 1950's sci-fi movie.  But, really, who cares? Blast Radius is an impressive and passionately entertaining evening in the theatre. That's what matters.

(first row center; press ticket)

No comments: