Blue-glowing tapered columns flanked by swirling 2D crystal brain jello lights and video monitors with red dot lightning grid patterns that ripple like it’s too late we’re going in! Is that Radiohead? Or… muzac Coldplay? An asteroid field! And there’s the dude from the comic books!
A disembodied voice… Open your mind…
You’re in a sci-fi world, Bub. And that’s a stage right there, not a screen.
The thing about science fiction – or speculative fiction, if you prefer – is that it’s about ideas. We lump almost anything with lasers and space battles into sci-fi and maybe forget that Twilight Zone and a lot of horror is more legitimately SF than Star Wars. Hey, it’s all awesome, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that if you’re asking “What if?” or you’re messing around with ideas, you don’t necessarily need the special effects. A sci-fi world starts here, with our world, and extrapolates out. What if you designed a sentient android to do dangerous jobs for you, but it decided to write poetry instead? If you could visit yourself in a parallel universe, what would you learn about choices you’d made? If you could resurrect a dead person, would it be the key to eternal life or the end of life as we know it? More than a mere adventure story does, a true science fiction story pushes the entire human race up to its own cutting edge and says, “Should we jump?”
And let me tell you, when you’re asking that human question not in a movie but in a play – it takes on a lot of immediacy. A live theater event does not give much space for explosions or transporters or ray gun fights. Nor is there any solving of story or character problems with “Romantic montage of Anakin and Padme frolicing on Naboo”. (Although, come to think of it, a montage of that relationship – as opposed to the actual dialogue – would have been a mercy.) They’re going to hash that shit out right there in front of you, with actual words and acting. There’s room for great lighting, sound, and inspired staging, but these things cannot carry the weight of live theater. The ideas, words, and humanoids have to do that work. Stage really puts sci-fi on its mettle.
Sci-Fest LA absolutely does that – and not just with staged readings. It’s a double-barrelled, month long event, with a lot of bonus happenings. I saw Program B, which features 4 excellent sci-fi one acts. Three one-acts comprise the first half of the show:
– Efficiency is a revival from the First World War, and is very much reflective of that era’s special horror: leadership’s failure to understand the exponentially increased inhumanity of mechanized warfare. It is supposedly the first sci-fi play ever. The actors well-represent laboratory naiveté, thuggish imperialism, and the courage of the oppressed.
– A Billion Tuesday Mornings pits an autistic but brilliant inventor against reality itself, as he tries to use his wonky invention to save his daughter. There’s a lot of pathos in watching this dad and daughter struggle with both their inner and cosmic demons.
– Access is a hilarious and inventive glimpse at cross-dimensional friendship… with yourself. It’s not so much a story arc but more a petri-dish for an idea. One for discussing at midnight over a couple or maybe ten drinks. Probably a nightmare to stage (and write), the cast does it smooth as silk.
– Act 2 is the semi-famous Moby Alpha, and it is less sci-fi itself, more adventurous homage. Not a criticism. It is flippin’ hilarious. Think Moby Dick in space, with allusions to a bewildering array of science fiction standards, all done with two dudes, two very versatile space helmets and one plastic bottle of… a liquid.
This whole show is great start to finish, with not a weak link anywhere within sensor range. And though I want to pontificate on the virtues of FX-less sci-fi, I have to say that what FX were used in this show – from sound to light and the other random bits – though simple, were top notch, and created the perfect atmosphere. Even the set changes are fun, as normally you’re sitting there in the half-dark, trying to figure out the significance of the transitional music, hoping your neighbor doesn’t try to grope you, etc.. In this show, you’re watching a weird medley of sci-fi clips and lighting tricks that keep you squarely in… whatever world you’re in. Could be anywhere – it’s sci-fi.
Program A (which I didn’t see – they alternate) features pieces from Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. So yeah – I missed those dudes and I still loved it. That’s the level of quality in this festival. There are also a variety of readings and award shows and what not spread throughout the month. There’s high quality poster art from the show you can bid on, some stellar (hardy har har) souvenirs and even a discount on drinks at the place next door, which you can take into the show. Yep – SF & Jameson: how is this not a great way to spend your evening?!
They push their sci-fi all-stars a bit too much – like, we get it – you have half the cast of Star Trek, shut up already – but that’s marketing for ya. It’s a bitchin’ festival, with or without half the cast of Star Trek. It needs to grow; feed yourself to it.
The schedule is a bit complicated, because there’s so much going on, but this is the direct link to it.
And a completely extraneous extra link to the Sci-Fest LA website.
Unconvinced by my unbridled enthusiasm? Here’s the LA Times review (with leaky spoilers – boo.)