In "Sovereign," the final act of Mac Rogers' epic alien-bugs vs. humanity Honeycomb Trilogy of plays, we learn that rebuilding the world from the ashes is much harder than leading the resistance. What happens after you've won the battle for the post-apocalypse?
I was thrilled by the trilogy's middle chapter, "Blast Radius," a production that demonstrated the dizzying heights to which science fiction could be dramatized for the stage. Rooted in domestic affairs and themes of love, sacrifice and loss, with the threat of a colonizing hivemind prodding the action forward, "Blast Radius" is brilliant in its ambiguity: the opposing sides are both correct, the central siblings at war with one another are both trying to save the day, and the action ends on a cliffhanger, with the fate of humanity (and countless bugs) in the balance.
"Sovereign" picks back up twenty years later, and pulls no punches — all of its blows land hard. There are no last-minute off-stage reprieves for our favorite characters from "Blast Radius" or the first installment, "Advance Man," which saw well-intentioned astronauts bring the aliens back to earth in the name of mutual cooperation.
While previous castmembers are gone, they are not forgotten — "Blast Radius" had promised a monument to the fallen, and it is prominent on stage now: names of the heroic dead carved on a big wooden wall, often referred to, and totally inescapable. As events unfold, those who are absent loom as constant reminders of the price of resistance and tenuous freedom. It's the kind of fantastic continuity of plot, set, props and attention to detail we've come to expect from Rogers and longtime director/collaborator Jordana Williams, who manage to stage and contain three very different plays in the same once-average family's suburban living room.
Astronaut Bill Cooke's children Ronnie (Hanna Cheek) and Abbie (Stephen Heskett) shared a youthful bond in "Advance Man" that had turned wrathful by "Blast Radius," which saw Ronnie running a ragtag human resistance while Abbie was a lauded and beloved ambassador to the alien side he'd chosen. The Cookes' familial conflict was the key to how to both end and save the word in "Blast Radius," and in "Sovereign," they're the only familiar faces left.
Ronnie, who had always been prickly and hard-headed, has become a fiercely cynical, uncompromising Governor in the post-post apocalypse, war-bitten, weary and wary, with near-dictatorial sway over former Floridian territories. The sensitive and too-idealistic Abbie is now the world's most hated war criminal for his intent to help the bugs assimilate into human bodies (and thus create an unstable but intriguing hybrid race, "skins").
When Abbie gets caught, Ronnie's inner circle faces a dilemma: Abbie has to die for who he is, and what he has done. But how to justify state-mandated execution with no state? Who makes the law, who argues and decides on it, in a society with no common culture left, save their oppression? What is "justice" to people grown unused to it — and what was it ever, really? Rogers is masterful at examining and poking holes in the bigger picture of what makes us human. He uses his fluid ear for dialogue and clear affection for speculative fiction as a microscope that zooms in unflinchingly on our cultural norms. All of the excellent narrative ambiguity from "Blast Radius" is back as the Cookes' history is put on the docket, and choosing which side is right and which is wrong becomes impossible when they both are.
"Sovereign" is somewhat slower-paced than its immediate predecessor, but for good reason: it has the weight of the world on its shoulders, and multiple worlds literally on trial. Because of a promise Ronnie made to Abbie's late lover and "skin" Conor, who betrayed the bugs and sacrificed himself in exchange for Abbie's safety, Ronnie has helped secretly keep her brother alive for years, despite her hatred of his allegiance. Now she's between a rock and an even harder place: as the main proponent of bringing back old ways and laws in the wake of the bug's seeming defeat, Ronnie is her brother's de facto judge.
And yet the newly re-created law against genocide — a word hinted at in "Blast Radius" but never spoken, writ large here — brings in Rogers' trademark moral ambiguity: Ronnie, who succeeded in almost totally wiping out another race, is surely guiltier than Abbie, who had a plan that failed before it launched.
My favorite element of Rogers' storytelling is that you never know what he will do next. Some characters hew to simple archetypes while others are so multi-layered they're literally people within people within people. The story twists and turns, and even the action happening off-stage will have you tilting forward in your chair, anxious to see what happens next. By the end I had my heart in my throat, and it is testament to exquisite pacing and plotting (especially in the second act) that the conclusion is entirely obscured, anyone's guess until it happens, and is a catharsis of awesome.
A strong script only goes so far, and the talented cast's dedication keeps the show humming along even through occasionally clunky-but-necessary exposition that relate the crucial events of the first two plays (you definitely don't need to have seen those to enjoy "Sovereign," but the recapping may help). Embodying the parts of Ronnie and Abbie for the first time, Cheek and Heskett are commendable and plunge in head first (though we do miss David Rosenblatt's imperiously bratty Abbie and Becky Byers' fiercely passionate Ronnie, all tiny dynamic motion).
Cheek is onstage for nearly every scene, and gives Ronnie the swagger and scathing cynicism her position demands — she snarls and prowls her way through, and is impossible to look away from. If you sometimes want to punch Ronnie in the face for her black-and-white view of the world, it means Cheek's doing her job right: her Ronnie would be the first to step into the ring. Heskett has the puppy-eyed soulfulness to embody the gentler but no less stubborn Abbie, while the radiant Medina Senghore is gracefully understated as Tanya, public defender in the Cooke Family Courthouse and speaker for compassionate humanity.
If some of the other characters can seem one-note, it is because they are embodying such perfectly drawn archetypes as to already feel well-known, with Rogers hitting all the sweet spots. Neimah Djourabachi winkingly plays Wilkie, a clueless member of Ronnie's elite bug-hunting team who can't see how bored she is with his chivalrous smarm. A more intriguing character is his best friend and Ronnie's right-hand-man, Sharp (Daryl Lathon), full of worldly-wise nuance and soldier's conflict. As Claret, Abbie's new "skin" companion, Erin Jerozal has all the wide-eyed innocence of an alien cut from its hivemind and put into human form, while Matt Golden's Zander acts the part of a rules-minded bureaucrat so well, I nearly passed him my tax return. Sara Thigpen's Fee, child-rearer who lost all of her own children, stands in for forgiveness and hatred in one body, while C.L. Weatherstone's Budeen, a dim-witted farmer, has only one scene but is a standout. As Budeen fails again and again under threat of harsh punishment to understand Ronnie's insistence on bringing back old traditions that no longer seem to have a place, we're left to wonder if Ronnie, hungry for an imagined glorious past, is damaging the present she is responsible for by not acknowledging how much the rules — and by extension, the needs of society — have changed.
"Sovereign" keeps one eye on the past and one on the present, and its sweep is classical in reach. (Rogers writes that he drew on Sophocles and Euripides for final play, and it shows in Ronnie's trend towards tyranny, in ripped, warring families and opposed siblings, and arguments on the nature of mankind and our prescribed rituals).
But Rogers is always looking toward the future: "Science fiction needs to be theater," he declares in the program's author's note, and makes it so. While drawing heavily on tropes as old as Dionysus, he renders them new by considering utterly alien forces in the mix. His writing is sharp, self-aware, and cuts straight to heart and Honeycomb both; it is also exceptionally timely, sounding a perfect note in our increasingly crowded landscape of dystopian narrative. Even in its most ponderous, navel-gazing moments, "Sovereign" is better entertainment than the fictions, genre or no, that are currently on stage and screen. At its best, it is breathtaking. Go now, before all hope is lost.
"Sovereign," presented by Gideon Productions and The BFG Collective, runs at The Secret Theatre (44-02 23rd Street, Queens, NY, www.secrettheatre.com), Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3 p.m through July 1st; tickets are $18/$15 for students and seniors.