Whether it’s due to anger, fear or simple annoyance with the shape of modern society, the idea of leaving Earth to colonize the moon or Mars has become a popular one of late. Yet, while it’s the idea of escaping the people of this world that’s likely making the idea of starting over on a new one so appealing, the irony is that space travel requires living in closer proximity to others than most people are accustomed to…without any escape whatsoever.
It’s this phenomenon that Journey explores. A new one-act play written, directed, designed and produced by Aaron Francis for 2019’s Hollywood Fringe, Journey centers on Evelyn and Alex, two scientists tasked with terraforming a far-off planet to make it habitable for an eventual human colony. The planet is light-years away, and the married couple was meant to be in cryo-sleep for the duration of the journey but found themselves unexpectedly awakened before it was complete. As a result, they’re now forced to endure the tedium of the remaining two-plus years of the trip fully awake, in a spacecraft with a tiny amount of living space, and only themselves and an eccentric Artificial Intelligence (AI) program for company. Unsurprisingly, the tight quarters and constant presence of one another has caused their relationship to degrade to the point where they can barely stand each other.
Interestingly, Journey is one of two 2019 Hollywood Fringe shows about planetary colonization. The other, Nick Rheinwald-Jones and Katelyn Schiller’s The Pod is an immersive experience where you embody the role of a would-be colonist. Journey isn’t immersive and it doesn’t claim to be, but with such a claustrophobic setting and such an intimate narrative, you can’t help but feel very much a part of Evelyn and Alex’s voyage, for better or for worse.
I say worse because the characters are pretty unpleasant to each other at times, and while this resentment and bile is undercut by humor, it’s nevertheless a welcome change when, about a third of the way through the play, the characters stop fighting and start opening up to each other. Journey covers a lot of emotional ground over its sixty minutes, giving us an idea of how Evelyn and Alex’s marriage wound up in such a sorry state, and eventually getting to the big existential questions that unite us as humans regardless of the planet we’re living on: What happens when we die and does any of what we do while alive really matter? It’s not easy packing so much into a short play, and Journey occasionally struggles beneath the weight of its ambition. The tone shifts abruptly at times, and the performers seem to struggle with conveying heavier emotions. Fortunately, Francis doesn’t seem interested in leaving his characters and audience in despair. He ends Journey on a thrilling, upbeat and hopeful note that both plays to his actors’ strengths and offers as much of an answer as anyone can provide.
Bridget Murray and Amir Talai give efficient performances as Evelyn and Alex, respectively. I was never truly moved by their portrayals, but the two actors deliver the play’s occasionally complex scientific dialog smoothly and compellingly — no small feat. They seem equally confident when it comes to Journey’s frequent humor. Murray, in particular, delivers a tightly hilarious critique of football that sums up the game’s many problems perhaps better than I’ve ever heard before. However, it’s Fringe veteran Carrie Keranen as BETTY, the ship’s AI, who arguably gets the biggest laughs in the show. Brought to life simply, but surprisingly effectively through use of a tablet, Keranen’s physical performance is limited to her face (which, sadly, is at times hard to see on the tablet’s surface). Keranen keeps her voice within the tight, not-fully-human range we’ve become accustomed to in sci-fi portrayals of AI, and her unemotional delivery is the perfect comedic counterpoint to the often-heated dialog taking place between the show’s living characters.
However, some of the biggest accolades have to go to Journey’s set. Compact and simple in design, it’s nevertheless an impressive setup that manages to feel like a spacecraft despite being built from wood. It effectively transforms the Broadwater stage into something alien, impersonal and cold, calling to mind both the iconic sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the minimalist design of Apple. It also severely limits the space the performers have to work with, but this is deliberate and works to the show’s benefit, adding to the claustrophobia and clearly illustrating how challenging and emotionally exhausting their existence together onboard this small ship is.
Journey ends with a reference to Richard Brautigan’s “I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone,” a poem that uses a movie about bringing electricity to a rural community to describe how world-changing Brautigan finds its subject. It’s not hard to see why Francis uses it — like Journey, Brautigan’s poem uses human achievement to tell a love story. In the end, that’s what Francis’s play proves to be. Despite all of its sci-fi trappings, Journey is a story that suggests humankind makes its biggest, most spectacular accomplishments when it remembers what it means to love.