Monday, August 06, 2018

Fringe 2018 - Review - The Flashlight Zone: 20 Sci-Fi Plays In One Hour - 5 stars

#mnfringe show 19 - The Flashlight Zone: 20 Sci-Fi Plays in One Hour (order chosen at random by audience) - figured I'd like it, pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it; someone asked Twilight Zone/Dark Mirror? I replied more Bradbury/Douglas Adams sci-fi - 5 stars

The premise is in the title - 20 super-short science fiction plays crammed into a single hour of Fringe.  And anyone familiar with Fruit Flies Like A Banana (this year of any of its previous visiting iterations) or the grandmother of them all, the NeoFuturists’ Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, will recognize The Flashlight Zone’s use of the audience as random element.  The titles of all the short plays are in the program, as well as posted around the walls of the Theatre In The Round playing space.  As the audience calls out (and man, was there a lot of shouting) the title of a piece, the acting ensemble calls it out in unison, the title comes off the wall, and they begin.  One play done, the process kicks in again, until all the stories are complete (or the hour is up, whichever comes first - but at this performance, they made it with time to spare).

“What is my intended purpose?”

The thing that continues to amaze, no matter how many times I see this concept attempted, is the ability of the cast to just jump into whatever story it is, no matter how long or short, how serious or silly, and just commit from the instant it begins, even though they have no idea from one minute to the next who’s going to be called out to the center to play, or who’s on deck to go next.  That’s some serious mental and emotional gymnastics right there.  No how easy they make it look, and this ensemble makes it look easy, like actors do this every day, we shouldn’t forget how cool that is.  For the record, the performers here are Justin Betancourt, Jada Beulah, Nicole Carey, Siarde EvansChristoffer, Amanda Kay Thomm, and Mitchel Vosejpka - and I would happily go see any or all of them in another production again, they were all great.  Kudos to director Megan Rene Guidry for putting them through their paces.

“The new pieces, whispering to each other in a language I don’t understand.”

The other amazing thing is that all these plays came out of the brain and word processor of one guy, Michael Weingartner.  I’m bummed that Weingartner’s headed off to law school right after the Fringe is over because I want to see more plays from this guy.  To be fair, your mileage may vary.  I was totally into The Flashlight Zone, Mom less so, and she’s a science fiction fan, too.  There are different flavors of sci-fi.  If you’re looking for nothing but bleak dystopian views of the future, or only bright and sunny utopias, neither of those seekers will find everything they want here.  When someone asked me, because they’d heard mixed reviews, “Is it more Twilight Zone/Black Mirror kind of sci-fi?”, I replied that it was “More Ray Bradbury/Douglas Adams kind of sci-fi.”  And that’s right dead center in my wheelhouse as far as sci-fi tastes go.  When I said to someone, “I’m surprised by just how much I loved that,” Mom chimed in, “I’m surprised by how much he loved that, too.”  I was fully prepared to like it, because of the genre, and the Fringey performance twist, but I really did get into the storytelling here.

“I know they’re constantly spying on us and it’s an invasion of privacy, but it’s convenient.”

And to say too much about the content kind of gives the game away, spoilers aplenty, since each piece isn’t more than a couple of minutes long, some much less.  But to give you a taste: there’s a repair robot who starts to question their purpose in life. There’s a man with an existential self-driving car that responds to the command, “Take me where I need to go.” 

“They twinkle like constellations - only closer.”

There’s the slippery slope of messing with time that happens when generals from the future give themselves orders in the past.  There’s impromptu marriages on the street for an unexpected reason.  There’s a mime who takes a man’s insult of “Get a job!” more literally than he’d like.  There’s an employee handbook that doesn’t quite give you all the information you need, particularly if there’s a double of you out there in the office complex. 

“I’m nobody at all.”

There’s a helpful home artificial intelligence device that decides for itself what will make your life easier.  There’s replacement prosthetic limbs that seem to have a mind of their own.  There’s a little boy and his astronaut mother who bond over a Superman action figure.  There’s the constant push and pull between virtual and regular old actual reality. 

“We know who the enemy is.”

There’s auto-reminders that help keep you close to those you’ve lost.  There’s hard decisions to be made in space when the mission has too much weight to carry, and one of the things you can get rid of is humans on board.  There’s more than one way to get yourself through that awkward first date, thanks to technology.  Technology also makes you wonder whether a human or a robot is a better way to go for a partner. 

“Why didn’t they want us?”

People can get personality overhauls in the strangest ways.  Alien visitors can let you down by deciding not to stop by.  Too many sources of information can make you wonder if you can trust any of them.  It can be hard to adjust to a new society when you’ve been in cryogenic sleep for over a hundred years.  Call-in radio shows in the future can get pretty lonely sometimes. 

“Today the mime has gone too far.”

And that whole “killing Hitler as a baby” thing - to stop great evil before it happens? That’s harder to parse when the person in question isn’t Hitler but, like a baby, is still innocent of crimes against humanity yet to be committed.

“It’s so bright.  Like a star.”

Neither humans nor technology are all good or all bad.  Depends on the situation in which you find yourself.  And in The Flashlight Zone, these situations come at you fast and furious.  But then they linger in your mind for further pondering.  The vast majority of them could be expanded into full-length plays, if you felt like playing around longer in those worlds.  As it is, this sampler platter approach gives you the future from a number of different angles, both friendly and ominous. 

“When the alarm sounds, all employees are to lie face down on the floor.”

Bonus points for the fact that sexuality in these future worlds is pretty fluid and matter of fact.  Couples in these stories are just as often two females or two males as they are opposite sex pairings.  The thing that’s laudable and different about it is that it doesn’t matter.  It’s never the point of a story.  It just is.  The un-remarkableness of the inclusion is what makes it so refreshing.  It’s nearly as gay as the shows tagging themselves on the Fringe website with the LGBTQ content label.  So, an extra note of thanks to the author, director and cast for that gift to this audience member.

“It’s amazing how quiet the house can get.”

Honestly, though, I think The Flashlight Zone is a gift to any Fringe audience member, so I think you should treat yourself and go see the thing in action.

5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

Here's some handy links to reviews of 5 Star Shows, 4.5 Star Shows, 4 Star Shows, 3 Star Shows, and my full Top 10, Top 11-20 and Returning Favorites lists.

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