Friday, Aug. 17, 2012

Science Fiction Action on the small stage

Another exceptionally fun time traveling Natalie Ryan show at the Alchemist

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The "turn off your cell phone" announcement at the beginning of a theatrical show has been done in a variety of different creative ways over the years. I don't think I'd ever heard it quite the way I did last night. Those making the announcement threatened to blow-up the planet if we didn't comply with the request. It was the beginning of another Vince Figueroa/Beth Lewinski Natalie Ryan play. The fun, live sci-fi stage comic drama still has plenty of charm in its second outing. Another summer bursting with senseless big-budget sci-fi actioners at the multiplex ends with an immensely enjoyable live stage sci-fi show. 

 

 

Anna Wolfe (Above, Right) returns in the role of Natalie Ryan--the girl in the red coat with a pocket watch that allows her to travel through time. A sweetly charming cross between Doctor Who and Nancy Drew, she's hundreds of years old, but still has the spark of youth in her. Wolfe's performance here feels just a little deeper than it did last year. The wizened, old time traveler is kind of a cliche . . . as is the quirky, offbeat, eccentric time traveler thanks to decades of Dr. Who. . . but Wolfe's Natalie Ryan has a vague weariness beyond the sweet youthfulness that has a compelling kind of depth to it. She's a character who somewhat deftly dodges sci-fi stereotypes. Wolfe's line delivery can feel kind of flat in places, but that actually works with the character. She's been through a lot in the last 400 or more years. A few hundred years of going on adventures and saving the world from countless threats have got to make someone a bit affectless in places. Even in those stray moments when she's performing in a less-than-dynamic way, Wolfe's overall stage presence never allows the character to be anything less than fun. 

 

Grace DeWolff (Above, left) returns to Natalie Ryan in a completely different role this year. Here she's playing something of a galactic cop. She's joining Natalie Ryan on an attempt to save the earth from an alien race that is plotting to destroy it out of a desire for revenge. DeWolff has the pitch and tone of the lines down perfectly. Like much space fantasy sci-fi, the dialogue can get pretty jargon-heavy in places, but DeWolff delivers it in a way that makes it utterly convincing. She's also got a staggeringly keen sense for the comedy Lewinski and Figueroa have written into the script. The relationship between DeWolff's time cop and Wolfe's time traveler is a complicated one, the full realization of which results in the single most interesting conversation in the whole play. Cleverly written and brilliantly acted, the relationship dynamic between DeWolff and Wolfe is well worth seeing the show. Enjoy any of the rest of it and that's just extra. . . the center and heart of this play is the interaction between Wolfe and DeWolff. It's the type of sci-fi that works better on stage than it does on the page or on the screen. There's a kind of resonance to seeing that kind of interaction live that makes a really strong case for more shows like this.--REASONABLY ESOTERIC SPOILER--The relationship between the two characters has precedent in sci-fi . . . the most tenderly-written of which had to be that of Arthur and Random in Douglas Adams' Mostly Harmless. Here it takes on completely different significance and ends up being a great deal of fun. There's comedy in it that Figueroa and Lewinski  render with inspired intricacy. Much of the rest  of the plot is an homage to the pulp sci-fi tradition that goes back at least as far as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon radio serials, but the relationship between Natalie and the galactic cop is still quite fresh for popular dramatic sci-fi. 

 

Other notably good performances include:

 

Rob Maas as the arch villain. As witnessed elsewhere this summer, Maas is really good as a villain. Here he's the right kind of sinister to keep a typically flat sci-fi villain from coming across as anything but boring. 90% of sci-fi movie villains are poorly performed. Maass has the right tilt and angle on the line delivery. It doesn't seem at all weak or silly, which is quite an accomplishment considering the script doesn't spend much time on making him all the interesting. He brings out the strength in the simplicity of a character bent on revenge through the total destruction of a planet. 

 

Libby Amato as a sexy extra-terrestrial bounty hunter. Okay, so there's probably no practical reason for a bounty hunter to wear skintight black pants and a corset, but Amato makes it work. She's got more than enough style to make her character's choice of costuming believable. The character is really good at what she does and she does it with style. Amato does a pretty good job of bringing that across. She's wielding a pair of pistols at times with the fluency of a big-screen bounty hunter. There's a scene where she does a quick draw of the two pistols that was kind of impressive. For me it came across with a lot more impact than most of the special effects in most of the action films I saw this summer. Really, explosions are only impressive the first couple of times. Libby Amato drawing a pair of pistols the way she does in that scene and a few other moments of Mexican stand-off-inspired tension throughout the play had much more visceral effect onstage than all that 3D Imax CGI the Holywood seems to love so much.

 

Okay, so I'm biased because I love theatre, but seeing some of those tired, old action movie conventions play out live onstage with actors like Amato who are willing to sell it . . . it just feels that much more impressive than anything deposited onto multiplex screens all over the country with a soullessly glossy sheen. 

 

Not that Figueroa and Lewinski don't know where the inspiration is coming from here. There's little doubt that Natalie Ryan is inspired by sci-fi and action in Hollywood (among other places.) They pay homage to a great many sci-fi franchises. There's the obvious reference to Dr. Who, but there's also Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and more than a few others. Figeuroa's sound design features samples from a few different sci-fi movies. The production design of the show has been streamlined from last year's Natalie Ryan show. Scenic elements are limited to a few large blocks, a few pictures and a few props. The really remarkable thing here is just how little reference one needs to lock-in the basic appeal of a sci-fi action story. Some advanced special effects work could really improve the overall experience of a Natalie Ryan show, but really all you need for a compelling sci-fi action story is decent acting from a cast that's willing to open up to it on an emotional level. That's precisely what is going on here.

 

Once again, after seeing Natalie Ryan I'm hoping for another sequel. You can't chart the commercial success of the show on Boxofficemojo.com . . . and there's a whole lot more than just money defining the success of a small indie theatre show like this, but with any luck chance and circumstance work to the advantage of the show and we get at least one more Natalie Ryan. The script clearly identifies the direction a third installment in the series could take. And having seen the first two now, I'd be really happy if this ended up as a trilogy. Is it too much to ask for a third chapter? 

 

Vince Figueroa and Beth Lewinski's Natalie Ryan and the Rogue Traveler runs through August 26th at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 South Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bayview. For ticket reservations, visit Alchemist Theatre online. A far more concise review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express. 

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