First Annual Sci-Fest: Theater Review

Rob Hollocks
A medley of sci-fi shorts ranging from inspired to amateurish.

The First Annual Sci-Fest is a series of nine science-fiction, one-act plays arranged into two omnibus programs.

Producers Michael Blaha, David Dean Bottrell and Lee Costello have hit on an inspired notion with The First Annual Sci-Fest, a series of nine science-fiction, one-act plays arranged into two omnibus programs. Playwrights featured in the new show run the gambit from newbies like Adam Esquenazi Douglas (Freedom of Speech), Minnesota Plates (The Ringer) and sci-fi legends like Ray Bradbury (Kaleidoscope). According to the program notes, it’s the first festival of its type, yet it seems familiar in a fifties kind of way when science fiction was mostly produced on a modest budget, often placing ideas over special effects. Titles like The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Thing come to mind, but more than anything Sci-Fest resembles The Twilight Zone, though not quite in the same league as Rod Serling’s classic TV series.

Sci-Fest Program A runs May 6-11 and May 20-25, while Program B runs May 13-18 and May 27 thru June 1. I didn’t have the chance to see Program B, but if you’re running late for Program A, don’t rush. The evening opens with John-Paul Nickel’s Forwarding Address, an examination of two happy young couples whose lives are interrupted by a messenger with a cryptic admonition from the future. Nickel, a writer for Syfy Channel’s Warehouse 13, delivers a thin concept plagued by obscure motivations, contrivances and clunky dialogue. Director Jack Kenny (also of Warehouse 13) deftly handles his ensemble with natural blocking and unimpeded rhythm, but the cast often struggles with the material.

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A problem common to all the Sci-Fest entries is their unnecessarily long running time, and Adam Esquenazi Douglas’ Freedom of Speech is no exception. James Kyson (Heroes) stars in this one-man show about a patient awakening from a surgical procedure only to learn the State has removed his vocal chords in order to protect a free speech-loving society from radicals such as he. Kyson stumbles about the stage, pressing buttons on a console in response to questions from a mechanical voice. Strong writing and directing make Freedom of Speech a timely (though hardly earth-shattering), Orwellian look at the first amendment and how some governments claiming to be its staunchest defender deliberately undermine it.

The best of the night is actor-playwright Minnesota Plates’ two-hander, The Ringer, which stars David Dean Bottrell (Days of Our Lives) as David, a refuge from an alien apocalypse hiding out in a dilapidated church. Joining him is a small boy, Max, (an outstanding Jakob Wedel) whom he comforts against the thrashing and roaring of aliens outside. Gradually it is revealed that only a human sacrifice will appease the monsters, a role David takes upon himself so that Max can live. Bottrell firmly anchors The Ringer with a strong assist by his young costar. And director Jim Fall astutely traverses the piece’s peaks and valleys arriving at a harrowing climax-– the high point of the evening.

The night’s biggest disappointment is Kaleidoscope, an ensemble piece by one of the genre’s best writers, Ray Bradbury. In it, a team of astronauts find themselves floating freely in space after a meteor destroys their ship. Writing in 1951, Bradbury can be excused for some misunderstandings about astro-phenomena, but not for this pointless, pseudo-metaphysical claptrap. While Captain Hollis, (Dean Haglund of The X-Files) waxes philosophical about the pointlessness of existence, Philip Anthony-Rodriguez (Gang Related) over-modulates as if he were in an opera hall and not a 99-seat theatre. Kaleidoscope is not a total failure as Matt Richter’s inspired minimalist lighting effectively emulates a mid-space explosion. And while the astronauts drift in space, each is lit from inside their helmet so their face seems to float freely against the starry backdrop.

Like most omnibus presentations, the First Annual Sci-Fest includes entries that are both strong and not so strong, but with ticket prices from $32 during the week to $34 on weekends, and 20% off at the adjoining Amalfi Restorante, the show is a bargain. After seeing the First Annual Sci-Fest, rest assured you’ll be hoping for a Second Annual Sci-Fest, and more after that.

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