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The Starship Astrov: Best Of Both Worlds (Midtown International Theatre Festival 2010)

by Stephen Tortora-Lee on July 24, 2010

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I’m sure it happens to you sometimes …  You’re walking down the street, pondering the inevitability of change and the hardship it’s apt to cause when you fail to adapt, and other foibles of the human condition…

Then suddenly you realize that the person beside you is reading your mind, and doesn’t like what they see, and is leveling their blaster at you to fire, when …

You get transported away.  

More than likely, you’ve been transported to The Starship Astrov, a play where playwright Duncan Pflaster (see an interview we did with him earlier here) takes the best of science fiction tropes and embeds many of the themes and characters of plays such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov.  The result is a play (delightfully directed by Eric Parness) that will tickle your funny bone with homages that run the gamut from Star Trek to Buck Rogers, but with an over arcing sense of  nostalgia for the times in your own life when you knew you had to move on to the next stage.  You can’t help but smile as what seems (at first) to be corny caricatures change into ideal vehicles which transport the story not just across the galaxy, but also to a meaningful conclusion for our own lives.  This is more than you would have expected from something billed as a comedy.

Like Chekhov’s plays, The Starship Astrov has a rich cast of characters whose archetypes help us see the different ways people navigate the world — all leading to different conclusions.   There is the noble captain of the starship, Commander Jonas January (played by Walter Brandes) who wants to treat every personal interaction as another time to invoke his belief in the proper codes of space travel.  Jenny “Sparky” Camilo (played by Christine Verleny) is the ship’s engineer who is so embedded in the life of the ship that she is a fish-out-of-water when planetside.  Space has been her life for so long she almost dismisses everything which occurred before she joined the space forces.  She admires the captain greatly and wishes he would notice her with something other than simply admiration for her great technicalal prowess and loyalty as a crew member.

Elizabeth A. Davis plays Celaria, a telepathic alien seductress with a mind of gold who comes from a beautiful corner of the galaxy with rich but confusing stories of trees and death and love and need that illuminate the audience, but which are often taken the wrong way by other characters.  She is married to Professor Jason Cole (played by Ariel Estrada), a genius amoung geniuses who invented the “star drive” that allows all the ships to go faster than light.  This invention has consequently spread humanity across the galaxy.  He is being taken to a conference to announce a new discovery and the able little tug Astrov will get him there in 4 days — just long enough for everyone to get bored.  The Professor knows all the secrets of science but is clueless when it comes to relationships . . . and has a mysterious illness to boot.

To help care for him is is Dr. Michael Rosy  (played by Philip Emeott).  Dr. Rosy is very strongly modeled on Chekhov’s character of Astrov in Uncle Vanya.   The shy doctor hungers for living someplace where he can make a difference, but is afraid to leave the security of the known.  He has been acquainted with the captain and his family for many years – including the captain’s daughter Ensign Ally January.  Ally (played by Jennifer Gawlik) is the the little ensign that could, but oftentimes doesn’t.  She works as communications officer (al la Uhura), where she often simply repeats what is already communicated across the loud speakers, but knows her craft well enough to make a difference when she needs to, though often she still is mostly worried about being a flighty happy young thing. Ally is still learning the ropes of life as a grown up; she works hard to not be taken for granted by the rest of the crew, namely the rough and rowdy First Mate Marcus Washington.  Washington (played by Rafael Jordan) is rude and obnoxious and generally always on the edge of getting in trouble.  He is the astrogator who is most needy of normal humanity in this super-scientific place.

Rafael Jordan and Elizabeth Davis | photo by Brad Fryman

Pflaster transplants these characters into a context  subtly yet richly pulled from the plays of Anton Chekhov.  The costumes by Mark Richard Caswell help complete the image of this exciting new space drama as Isabella F. Byrd’s lighting design hit the mark with intentionally cheesy and dramatic lighting effects that are the mainstay of science fiction TV throughout the ages. The musical interludes worked in by Nick Moore help draw the audeince into the nostalgia of classic space opera.

Like Chekhov’s plays Pflaster gives us lessons of how we can deal  with our own personal crises  in a world where change  is inevitable and transformation is a necessary tool for survival.   In a universe where the incredible miracle of interstellar flight has become humdrum the characters struggle to keep the armor of their once nobel professions in tact, as secrets at the heart of the galaxy threaten to unravel the only existence they know in a way that echoes the struggles Chekhov’s characters faced as the world modernized around them.

Sometimes you want a little cheesy science fiction, sometimes you want  a bittersweet reflection on the human condition.  Luckily in the case of The Starship Astrov you can have both.  See it this week while you can as it only runs through July 31st.


The Starship Astrov
Written By Duncan Pflaster
Directed by Eric Parness
The Beckett @ Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
(between 9th & 10th Avenues)
New York, NY  10036
Ticket Prices: $19.25
Remaining Shows:
July 29 – 7pm
July 31 – 2pm

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