The Secret Lives of Asteroids

What’s smaller than a planet, larger than a meteoroid, and a favorite subject of science-fiction writers? The easy answer is an asteroid, of course, but its particularities are harder to define, especially for the average human (or theatergoer). But leave it to experimental risk-taker Mac Wellman (an oft-feted Obie Award-winning playwright and professor at Brooklyn College) to attempt to humanize this outer-space phenomenon and thrust it center stage. In 1965UU-- his adaptation of a constellation of his own short stories, A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds--he charts the imaginary histories of actual asteroids, creating a playful, surreal world that is as foreign to most of us as the surface of the moon.

Your enjoyment of this brief fantasy will depend on your ability to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in what you don’t – and most likely never will – understand. It’s a discombobulating experience, in both content and execution, and the shapeless plot might leave you feeling as if you, too, are floating through space. In the end, 1965UU proves to be more satisfying as a cerebral exercise than as a theatrical one.

Within the rectangular confines of the Chocolate Factory Theatre, a long runway stretches wide before the audience. There’s a low, ominous rumbling in the background, from which Dr. Ravanello (“Nello, for short”) materializes, slumped in a chair. Clad in a dark robe, thick goggles, and white athletic socks, he introduces himself as part of “Planetoid 1965UU” and becomes our guide to this stark world, a place where he has only three companions: Alphonse Bedo, the hefty, sardonic barometer of an object’s reflectivity; Umberto the Polisher, the gruff, bearded leader, who shines everything to gleaming perfection; and Rosalind, whom they all desperately adore, and who whizzes by at lightning speed in her own orbit.

Asteroids, as it turns out, are studied within surprisingly human terms – assigned to families, given intricate names, and tracked by origin. Behaviorally, however, they can be both predictable and unpredictable (hence their forbidding presence in sci-fi scripts), and Wellman observes them here in an intriguing, yet often alienating, parallel to the human condition. How much do we (or can we) determine our fate? What forces must be in place for us to collide?

Wellman creates an unfamiliar landscape and then fills it with recognizable emotions, including infatuation, unrequited love, jealousy, loneliness, and ennui. Particularly fascinating are the “No-Lookies,” which Nello calls “our interior theater” – scripts that literally float through the universe, just waiting to be enacted. Do we drift through the universe only to imbibe and perform various scripts that have been penned for us?

But as fascinating (and worthy) as many of these questions are, they are delivered through a confusing clot of theatrical devices and bizarre scenarios. An actress (Heather Christian) sits at one end of the stage, lit with “bluish-green dust,” and reads the lines that are occasionally projected on the back wall of the stage in a robotic, spacey voice. At the beginning this includes the stage directions; later, she repeats a fortune-cookie mantra: “What is must stand alone; stand still.”

And she doesn’t just speak – she simulates the acrobatic flatulence of one character via her microphone, providing just one of the jarring pockets of humor that percolate randomly throughout the production.

With his taut, reptilian gaze, Paul Lazar makes a game, if unremarkable, interpreter of the planetoid, and his planetary cohorts make only brief, often bizarre, cameo appearances.

For all its off-putting weirdness, 1965UU benefits most from Wellman’s poetic language: one moment finds us within “the deep umbrella of the darkest velvety night shadow,” and in the final scene, Nello tells a compelling story about a “vividly vermillion” radish. The tale culminates when, in a moment full of suspense and anticipation, Nello reaches into his pocket and asks us to look at an object. As he unfurls his fingers to reveal his palm, he presents his treasure to the audience. In a way, it’s a final test to qualify us for understanding this world. His hand, as it turns out, is empty – unless you happen to see something there, of course.

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