Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review - The Starship Astrov (Oberon Theatre Ensemble and the Midtown International Theatre Festival)

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Brad Fryman

The Starship Astrov: A Chekhovian Space Comedy. I'll admit, it sounds a little... unlikely. Chekhov meets Chekov. What's next? The Triffid Orchard? Three Klingon Sisters? Uncle Adama?

Well, you get the picture.

The remarkable thing is that it actually works, and works well, due in large part to playwright Duncan Pflaster's ability to walk the fine line between humor and pathos, just like Chekhov before him. Astrov is a very funny play, especially in the first half, but it still presents sad, lonely people longing for purpose, meaning and love. The twist is that it presents them not in a country estate, but in possibly the loneliest place of all - the endless void of deep space.

In the year 3047, Professor Cole (Ariel Estrada), his beautiful alien wife Celaria (Elizabeth A. Davis) and faithful doctor, Michael Rosy (Philip Emeott), board the Starship Astrov, traveling to a conference with news that will shatter the lives of everyone in the galaxy. Seemingly just another boring diplomatic mission, the crew of the Astrov - Captain January (Walter Brandes), his daughter Ally (Jennifer Gawlik), Marcus Washington (Rafael Jordan) and "Sparky" Camilo (Christine Verleny) - have no idea the twists and turns this trip will take, as they navigate a minefield of hidden love, misunderstandings, bigotry, and longing.

Since The Starship Astrov is part of a festival, the production elements are on the understated side. Despite consisting of very little other than boxes, chairs and tables, Darby Cire's set is a little unwieldy, leading to longer set changes than should be necessary. Isabelle F. Byrd's lighting design is good, especially for a festival, though director Eric Parness allows the actors to wander into shadow from time to time. Sound designer Nick Moore borrows liberally from old sci-fi shows (the swoosh of the automatic doors in particular is a lot of fun) and creates white noise in the background to simulate being on a ship. A very nice touch. Mark Richard Caswell's costumes are a joyful throwback to the cheesy uniforms and gauzy dresses of the original Star Trek. He is especially clever in creating a costume for Celaria, a green alien, whose green comes from Caswell's costume, not makeup.

The acting is anything but cheesy. There is not a single Shatner in the cast. In particular, Philip Emeott does an outstanding job as the conflicted Dr. Rosy. Torn between his rather humiliating obsession with Celaria and his duty to his employer and completely oblivious to the stary-eyed longing from young Ally, he often gets the funniest and most moving scenes in the play. Other performances of note are given by Elizabeth A. Davis as the alien trying to understand and be understood by the humans around her, and Christine Verleny as Sparky, the member of the crew that has the most to lose with Professor Cole's announcement. Verleny is particularly effective in her scenes with Walter Brandes' Captain January.

If you are a fan of Chekhov or a fan of sci-fi, The Starship Astrov is worth a look. I'd suggest getting to the theatre early - the house music is a fun mix of theme songs from sci-fi shows. I was amused, but not surprised that I knew every single one of them.

The Starship Astrov
Written by Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Eric Parness
Associate Director: Jaime Robert Carrillo
Stage Manager: Jenna Lazar
Set Designer: Darby Cire
Costume Designer: Mark Richard Caswell
Lighting Designer: Isabelle F. Byrd
Sound Designer: Nick Moore
PR Consultant: Antonio MiniƱo, Kampfire PR

Featuring: Walter Brandes (Captain Jonas January), Elizabeth A. Davis (Celaria), Philip Emeott (Dr. Michael Rosy), Ariel Estrada (Professor Jason Cole), Jennifer Gawlik (Ally January), Rafael Jordon (Marcus Washington), Christine Verleny (Jenny "Sparky" Camilo)

Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St.

Saturday, July 17th at 9:00pm
Tuesday, July 20th at 8:00pm
Friday, July 23rd at 8:00pm
Thursday, July 29th at 7:00pm
Saturday, July 31st at 2:00pm

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