The worlds of science fiction and theater don’t often overlap; the genres perhaps most memorably collided in 1920’s R.U.R., a play that coined the word and a lot of the concept of “robots.” The two worlds have generally careened apart since then; especially in the last few decades, sci-fi has been the realm of enormously budgeted movies and TV shows that ooze with expensive special effects, which would often be difficult to adapt to live theater.
Science fiction theater does exist and playwrights and directors often find creative ways to explore high-concept technology without a blockbuster budget. Caryl Churchill has shown with A Number that it’s possible to do a nuanced show about the ethics of cloning that requires only two actors and a minimal or even non-existent budget for sets and props.
But the story that Spooky Action Theater has selected to adapt and stage for this year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival all but demands some spectacular effects. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, adapted for the stage and directed here by Natsu Onoda Power, may rely on a small cast—there are only three main characters—but the story also requires some sweeping world building. In Le Guin’s story, everyman George Orr (Matthew Marcus) finds that sometimes, when he wakes from a troubled sleep, the world around him has been reshaped in the form of whatever he last dreamed of and that only he remembers the world as it was before.
This means that the play must transport George, his scheming doctor (Matthew Vaky) and love interest/lawyer Heather (Erica Chamblee) from a world like ours to a post apocalyptic future to a world being invaded by aliens and finally to a world where racism has been eliminated by erasing the skin color of every human being, all within the space of a dream.
The production doesn’t edit away all of this potentially expensive worldbuilding. Cleverly, Power has chosen to instead flaunt the low-budget solutions made for special effects. A helmet that modifies George’s dreams, for example, is obviously a barely-modified pasta strainer, which George clearly recognizes as such, and which doesn’t give him a lot of confidence when he straps it to his head. But it works, both as a device that controls his dreams, and as a comedic moment. A set that mostly consists of swivelling walls of cardboard boxes hides props and enacts lightning-quick scene (and universe) changes. And Power utilizes a large ensemble to fill out the world(s) around the small main cast, who act as lab assistants, aliens, a chorus (Greek and vocal), and puppet-assisting kuroko.
Even effects that would otherwise be very ordinary, like showing aliens invading a space station by projecting a video of that onto one of the cardboard walls rather than creating a set and costumes for the moment, are transformed into something impressive and captivating. The audience can watch these video story beats being made on the fly, as the ensemble manipulates dozens of miniatures and cutouts in front of a camera to create the live footage that is blown up to larger-than-life proportions on the screen behind them.
Despite this impressive bag of budget tricks, there are still times where the production feels unpolished. Heaven’s pacing is frenetic and its 90-minute runtime flies by, but the constant energy dispersal means that sometimes characters seem to glide around in their swivel chairs or endlessly circle someone as they speak just to avoid even a single moment of stasis on stage. Still, Spooky Action has developed an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Le Guin’s enormous work that manages to create some astonishing and sweeping visuals. Le Guin passed away shortly before the show began its run, but it’s hard not to believe she’d approve of seeing this particular dream brought to life.
At Spooky Action Theater to March 11. 1810 16th St. NW. $20–$40. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org.