For years Sci-Fi writers like H. G. Wells and Kim Stanley Robinson have looked to the red planet and tried to dream what it holds in store for the human race. Will its tripod-like inhabitants destroy us? Or will we terraform the barren world to suit our needs and live there? MIT professor Jay Scheib, who conceived PS 122's stimulating, but sometimes incoherent new production Untitled Mars (this title may change), seems to think that folks on Mars will suffer from the same ambition, lust and madness that the rest of us do on Earth. With help from the Budapest theater company Pont Muhely, Scheib transports his chaotic vision of a not-too-distant Martian habitat to the stage. Or is it, as the dialogue sometimes suggests, merely a simulation of a Martian habitat in Utah? This experience, perhaps more akin to performance art than a typical play, is often very vague. There are usually two or three things going on at once and obviously we're not meant to lap up every detail. Regardless, Scheib's characters have obviously adapted negatively to their confined existence away from society. We are immersed in the station psychiatrist's fight to keep her clinic open, a go-getting plumber's real estate venture in the Olympis Mons region, and a repairwoman's struggle to keep hold of her sanity.
Scheib and his team of scenic, light, video and sound designers have woven a persuasive tapestry out of the show's technical elements, a superb effort that is more than worth the price of admission. Here is not a theatrical Mars, nor a minimal one. Scheib's portrait is one of efficiency, borrowing heavily from contemporary technology. At one end of the stage there is a white, cylindrical module that is maybe 15 feet in diameter. This functions as a sort of central command for everything and there is a long window all the way around, so that the audience can see the actors inside. On the other end of the stage is an all white, but otherwise typical conference room. Between the two structures there is a long table and a plethora of projection surfaces. There are video cameras positioned liberally about the stage and at any given moment, one or two of them are projecting onto one of the screens. Amid constant radio chatter and otherworldly sound effects, the cast – sometimes in full spacesuits – moves in and out of these two habitats. Often, the audience must rely on monitors to see what is going on or to try to make out garbled dialogue, which adds to the overall sense of absorption into the piece.
When this sensory cacophony quiets down and only a couple of characters are featured, audience members hungry for rich characterization might find that the human parts of Untitled Mars don't quite measure up to its stylistic sum. Despite a sincere effort from the cast, they are only ciphers carrying out rote motions. None of the characters, like the plumber or the repairwoman, are particularly empathetic; and indeed, this might be the point. The play is clearly about a big idea – the good and bad elements of human nature exported to a new world – but the mode of the piece doesn’t allow us to easily wrangle any cathartic resolution out of its complex texture. Like the members of this habitat’s crew, perhaps this is only an experiment and we aren’t supposed to be able to read any emotions through these pixilated video images. Maybe Scheib is channeling some bleak premonition of man’s future, where the devices around us have choked out our genuine emotions. Or am I giving him too much credit?
Either way, several plot points are lost in the play's detached opaqueness. One crew member transforms into a green Martian, complete with an alligator tail, but we don't know if he is actually transforming, if he is aping a Martian as part of the training simulation or if his transformation is just a metaphorical echo of an earlier remark that claims humans will actually have to, in a manner of speaking, "become" Martians to survive the planet's harsh terrain. Narrative elusiveness and aloofness can sometimes be valuable tools in theater, lending a piece great applicability – but in the case of Untitled Mars, I always felt like I was missing something. If the play had been overtly performance art, with no illusion of a narrative structure or characterization, the story incongruities and lack of character depth wouldn’t have mattered. But since there are characters and there is a definite story being told, the absence of these elements felt detrimental.
This cast is asked to do some pretty strange things — simulate sex both on stage and on camera, dress in space suits and, in some cases, just show up to pre-record a quick video snippet. No matter the nature of the role, every cast member handles the material with unimpeachable naturalism. Natalie Thomas' silent performance as the temporally-confused Mannie largely consists of dance, but she exudes an appropriate and endearing childlike quality. Helio the lower-class Martian is also quite funny in the hands of a deadpan Karl Allen.
Purposely or not, Untitled Mars lacks some heart, but more than makes up for it with its conceptual and technical surefootedness. As they say, sometimes the story being told is not as important as how it is told. In this case it is told with considerable elegance and ingenuity, creating a glum, if unfocused, facsimile of man's destiny on the red planet.