Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Honeycomb Trilogy: Advance Man, Blast Radius, Sovereign

On one hand, Mac Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy is a highly entertaining sci-fi epic, covering over 20 years and an extraterrestrial invasion or two. It has everything you could ask for: a fascinating alien race, a believable version of earth, characters with strong desires and stronger personalities, danger, and suspense. It's also funnier than many comedies I've seen. On the other hand, Honeycomb Trilogy is a smart and thoughtful examination of family, free will, the power and powerlessness of love, the arrogance of people who decide to change the world, the importance of that arrogance, and many other important and thought-provoking topics. In its own way, it's a masterpiece. What Mac Rogers has done is extraordinary: he has nested philosophy in frivolity and the result kicks ass.

Advance Man 
Sean Williams, Kristen Vaughan
Photo: Deborah Alexander
The current Gideon production at the Gym at Judson Church is splendid. Jordana Williams directs masterfully, succeeding on the macro and micro levels and everything in between. Her attention to detail is lovely, and her ability to keep the machinery of the trilogy (6 acts; 29 performers; 3 sets) moving is impressive. Kudos as well to her assistant directors (Audrey Marshall, Mikell Kober, Sara Thigpen) and stage managers (Victoria Barclay, Nikki Castle, Devan Hibbard). If "it takes a village" for most shows, this one took a small city, I'm sure.

And, oh, that cast. Brilliant performance after brilliant performance after brilliant performance. Each actor inhabits his or her role fully; even the smallest role becomes a rich presence, a person you know incredibly well. A lot of this is in Rogers' writing, of course, but the actors, guided by Williams, bring his world vividly alive. Becky Byers and Hanna Cheek play Ronnie at different times of her life; both are fierce, funny, and frightening as a small and difficult woman who becomes a great leader by sheer personality and conviction. David Rosenblatt and Stephen Heskett play Abbie at different times of his life; together they skillfully show us how a shy and sweet boy can turn into a dangerous man. Kristen Vaughan plays Amelia, Ronnie and Abbie's mother, who is (to say the least) pushed out of her comfort zone as the rules of society change or disappear; Vaughan is superb, as always. Sean Williams gives a wily performance as Ronnie and Abbie's father, an astronaut and maybe a hero, who may or may not ever be completely sincere. Jason Howard is extraordinary, as always, as the astronaut who returns from space drastically changed. Brian Silliman oozes cheerful sleaze as a venture capitalist thrilled to be in the presence of people who have actually been to Mars. The rest of the amazing cast comprises Rebecca Comtois, Neimah Djourabchi, Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, Matt Golden, Felicia J. Hudson, Erin Jerozal, Ana Maria Jomolca, Yeauxlanda Kay, Daryl Lathon, Carlos Martin, Joe Mathers, Lori E. Parquet, Amy Lee Pearsall,  Seth Shelden,  Nancy Sirianni, Alisha Spielmann, Adam Swiderski, C.L.Weatherstone, and Cotton Wright. Each contributes significantly.

The design people also excel. Sandy Yaklin gives us a room that echoes a world changing and changing again; Amanda Jenks' costumes help define the characters beautifully (though the costumes in Sovereign should perhaps be more ragged?); Jennifer Wilcox's lighting is evocative and moody; and the sound design by Jeanne Travis sets the stage and the mood smartly and effectively.

Blast Radius
Alisha Spielmann, Becky Byers, Amy Lee Pearsall,
Nancy Sirianni, Felicia J. Hudson
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Here be spoilers

General comments on Honeycomb Trilogy:

--My nephew and I were so affected by Advance Man that we spent the break before Blast Radius debating the advantages and disadvantages of individuality, competition, hive minds/socialism, and how to live a worthwhile life.

--To whoever designed and built the giant insect leg, I tip my hat (Sandy Yaklin, I guess?). The leg somehow manages to be silly and impressive, allowing the audience to laugh without being pulled out of the story.

Hanna Cheek, Stephen Heskett
Photo: Deborah Alexander
--I love, love, love that Conor, the insect ambassador in the body of a man, partially learns about being human from a romance novel. Books are forbidden at this point, but he can't help reading on. He is mesmerized when a young man asks his beloved's father for her hand. Conor is so entranced that he echoes the scene later on, in a sweet and funny and sad scene.

--The economy of Rogers' writing is terrific. Take this line, said by a being who looks human but whose body has been taken over by a giant insect: "By 'bugs,' do you mean the People of the Honeycomb?" Its significance can't be fully understood without context, but what it does, in its deceptively simple way, is sum up years of conflicted belief systems.

--Here's another example, spoken by one of the astronauts, depressed and drunk but good-looking: "Two types of girls go for me. Stupid ones who think they can fix me, and smart ones who
feel like doing something stupid."

--Then there's this exchange. Amelia is a homemaker who has lived for years in the shadow of her astronaut husband Bill. Lynn is a detective she hired to find out if Bill is cheating on her.
AMELIA: Abbie’s like his father: He’s brilliant and he feels everything in the world. Ronnie’s like her father: She’s so angry and she never backs down. 
LYNN: They must take after you a little bit. 
      --Rogers manages to avoid sentimentality even when it would be the easy and expected way to go. The Honeycomb Trilogy is filled with misunderstandings, bad timing, and the other woes of being human, and it follows the results to their logical and real conclusions. The one exception--when Ronnie and Abbie go off together in the end--is absolutely right and necessary.

      --Rogers also lets obnoxious people be truly obnoxious. Ronnie is a hero and a pain in the ass. A major pain in the ass. She's often wrong and unfair. She's a more interesting character because her strengths and weaknesses are not mitigated.

      --Rogers is a master of exposition, giving out information at exactly the right pace--or, when appropriate, not at all. Advance Man is a bit of a mystery--and a satisfying one--as we try to figure out what the heck is going on. Some things are never quite explained, and that feels right too. In Sovereign, we never learn what happened to Ronnie's leg, and that's okay.

      As I review the scripts, I see how Rogers threads themes beautifully through the whole trilogy. It is only on second viewing that I caught how this or that idea resonated back and forth from play to play. Reading the scripts, I catch even more. For example, in Advance Man Ronnie's and Abbie's eventual beliefs and values are carefully planted in what seems to be basic sibling squabbling. Does it matter that Ronnie dislikes insects as cartoon characters because she finds them cold and unknowable? Does it matter that Abbie is "sick of faces" and the human race? More than you could ever imagine at that point of the trilogy.

      End of spoilers

      I could go on and on, but the best way to find out about the Honeycomb Trilogy is to see the Honeycomb Trilogy. 

      It runs through November 14th. Here's how to get tickets:
      Tickets are available here:
      Marathon tickets are available here:
      (press ticket; 2nd row)

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