Monday, May 2, 2011

Natalie Ryan: Pleasantly Pop Sci-Fi Comedy

Dr. Who Meets Nancy Drew in a new comedy at the Alchemist in Bay View

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I went to the Alchemist Theatre to see Natalie Ryan and the Brain Thieves. I knew it was a sci-fi comedy by Vince Figueroa (who also wrote 8-Bit Warrior) and Beth Lewinski (of Meanwhile and various other projects.) Turns out it’s a huge amount of fun.

Natalie Ryan builds a comedy off a solid Dr. Who plot foundation. Anna Wolfe plays the title character—something of a cross between Nancy Drew and Dr. Who. The beginning of the play tells the story of a brilliant girl in high school in the mid-twentieth century who was experimenting with advanced particle physics for a science fair and accidentally became a quasi-immortal time traveler in the process.

After a quick jaunt through the character’s origin, the plot advances rather quickly to a comic version of contemporary MIT. Cynthia Kmak plays a mad physics professor trying to regain her youth through exploiting Natalie’s time traveling pocket watch. Gwen Zupan and Grace DeWolf play aliens who get caught-up in the more ambitious end of the professor’s schemes. In the course of events, Natalie runs into a physics student who helps her out played by Lee Rowley.

The plot owes a huge amount to Dr. Who—something that the script acknowledges pretty directly right away. (The name of Ryan’s school is “Tennant High School”—a nod to the actor to play the character the entire second half of the last decade.) Rowley as the male companion to the title time traveler is a pretty obvious parallel . . . her sonic screwdriver-like all-purpose device being a smartphone with a number of apps . . . there’s a really impressive attention tho detail in the script. It’s got all the earmarks of really good commercial-grade genre sci-fi with an agreeably campy flavor to it.

High school senior and First Stage Young Company member Anna Wolfe plays Natalie. Wolfe has a staggering amount of charisma in the role (actually quite a bit more than most of the guys who have played Dr. Who over the years.) The script calls for a girl who can be sweet, wholesome and a tremendous genius. The accident has left Natalie Ryan looking very, very young while also being several hundred years old. It would be a challenge for any actress to get across the mixture of wholesome mid-century schoolgirl charm and ancient wisdom that comes from a life lived traveling the width and breadth of time and space. Anna Wolfe does a pretty good job of it, though the more experienced and authoritative edge of the character’s personality feels a bit out of her reach in places.

Rowley and Kmak make for really solid supporting performances. Rowley is fun as a bewildered sidekick. Kmak has no trouble spoofing the time-honored adventure serial villain template. The aliens—which bear some passing resemblance to H.R. Geiger’s design for Ridley Scott’s Alien make for an interestingly pair of antagonists. Zupan plays the semi-geroic superior to DeWolf’s more animalistic underling. DeWolf manages some really impressively atmospheric vocalizations in the role of the alien underling. I can actually picture her watching Ridley Scott’s original Alien film and taking notes on the sound design—trying out different ways of mimicking that without artificial modulation.

There are actually quite a few nods to different sci-fi bits. The overall Dr. Who-ish plot has moments that pay loving  homage to Aykroyd and Ramis’ Ghostbusters, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Back to the Future and more. And like any of those precursors, Natalie Ryan seems to have the perfect formula for a solid adventure fiction serial.

And whether it intends to or not, Natalie Ryan and the Brain Thieves makes a really strong case for being the first in a series of  Natalie Ryan shows starring Anna Wolfe. Wolfe’s handle on the character can only get better with subsequent episodes and this is way too much fun to stop at a single production, so I’m really, really hoping Figueroa and Lewinski could put out another one of these in the near future, providing it fits with Wolfe’s schedule. Of course, it also kind of requires that this one be a success, and there’s really no telling with local theatre audiences. It’s not like there isn’t precedent for that sort of thing . . . back in the early ‘70’s, the Organic Theatre in Chicago did a three-part science-fiction adventure series called WARP which was extremely profitable for the company. It’d be a lot of fun to see the same happen for Natalie Ryan.

Natalie Ryan and the Brain Thieves runs through May 14th at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View. For tickets, visit the Alchemist online.

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