Sat
Aug 23 2008 2:59pm

SF Theatre: There Will Come Soft Rains

One of the agendas I was excited about pursuing on tor.com is a drive to increase the visibility of speculative fiction theatre within the SF community, which is largely oblivious to the inventive stagings, vigorous workings-out, and brilliant explications that the stage has given to tropes that the SF crowd often considers its sole domain. Granted, the relative obscurity of theatre in the SF world is in large part due to access issues and to the ephemerality of the medium, but there’s enough work of worth and interest being developed that it seems a shame to let it go by without comment.

I could not have asked for a finer place to start the discussion than with There Will Come Soft Rains, a “science-fiction symphony in three acts” that has one performance left—tonight’s—in the New York International Fringe Festival. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of New York City and are wondering what to do with your Saturday evening, I doubt there’s a better option than to show up at the New School tonight and stake your claim to a ticket for this stunning adaptation of three great science fiction short stories.

The show is based upon Stanislaw Lem's “How the World Was Saved” (from The Cyberiad, which was first published in Polish in 1967 and in English, in a translation by Michael Kandel, in 1974), Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini’s “On the Nature of Time” (which appeared in Amazing in 1981), and Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (from The Martian Chronicles, 1950). The crux of all three adaptations is to create an impressionistic tableau of the fantastical element rather than attempting to portray the crucial technology with special effects or complicated setpieces: in the first, a pair of puppet Constructers are transposed with a machine whose moving parts are animated by humans; the second uses tricks of the light to signify time travel; and, finally, a far-off future is built from whole cloth with simple household objects repurposed to stand in for an infinite variety of speculative robotics. Since these technologies are the focal point of their stories, the material goods supporting them take center stage, monopolizing the audience’s attention to glorious effect. This is in no means intended to be dismissive of the acting, cooreography, lighting, and sound design, all of which were quietly evocative, almost to the point where they blended together into the background and cleared the way for the puppets—and the language of the stories themselves—to take center stage.

The results were surprisingly soothing for such heady fare, mostly taking a quiet, reverent tone (quite in contrast, for example, to the trippily horrific approach taken in one prior adaptation of the Bradbury short, animated in Russia in 1984). If anything, I wondered if the show was too lulling at times, largely due to the fact that the sources for the first and last playlets were read in their entirety (or close to it) in cadences reminiscent of the standard delivery for children's bedtimes stories, an approach that lent an absurdist sheen to any moments of violence subsequently tackled.

Aside from this uncertainty about tone, any other quibbles with the production—the gratingly cutesy voices taken on by the Contractors in Lem’s story, or the distracting fuzziness and breaks in the projections used in “Time”—were either minor, or attributable to and forgiven by the technical limitations that are unavoidable in a small-scale self-funded production like this. All in all, though, I can easily proclaim this to be the best show I've seen in my (admittedly limited) Fringe-going experiences over the past two or three years.

Of course, this brings to mind the show’s great insoluble flaw: all theatre is ephemeral, but Fringe especially so. It’s a shame that There Will Come Soft Rains was only scheduled for five performances, if only because it makes it difficult to tell everyone we know to go see it. There is a ray of hope in the fact that many shows have gone on to lives beyond the Fringe, and there’s a chance that this will be one of them. But even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, at least we can eagerly await whatever Sinking Ship Productions tackles next.

19 comments
David Moldawer
1. Dave
Dude, you've got to tell me when stuff like that is happening before the show is sold out. We would have gone!
John Joseph Adams
2. johnjosephadams
I saw this show too and have to concur with Liz's assessment--it was a great. Unlike her, I don't have any previous viewings of SFnal theater to compare it to, so I'm glad to hear that to someone who's seen such productions before it stood out as an achievement as well.

Dave, there's a mailing list called GothamLit (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gothamlit/) that sends out notices of SFnal events in the NYC area, which is pretty handy for finding cool stuff like this. (That's where I heard about it.) It's pretty handy--and it's moderated, so there's no junk mail or chatter that comes through the list, just valid event listings a couple times a week.
Carlos Hernandez
3. Yokozuna
I saw this show on Thursday, and, after having seen 20 Fringe shows in 14 days, I can definitely say it had the most ambitious staging and choreography of any show I saw. It was definitely well-done and worth seeing -- though I can't quite call it the best Fringe show I've seen. _Love is Dead_, _China: The Whole Enchilada_, and _Thoroughly Stupid Things_ were, in my modest opinion, more fully realized works of drama.

I agree with what you said about the show being "soothing" to the point of being "lulling." In fact, I would go a little farther: I think they showed too much damn respect to the authors! Whenever you're transporting a work of art from one medium to the next, you've assigned yourself the diabolically difficult job of paying homage to both genres. I think the show was a success insofar as it succeeded in doing this. But they should have trimmed the stories and made them work for theater.

The first of the three vignettes was, I think, the most successful: the use of the puppetry and the lightbulb set design was inspired. The second vignette I enjoyed mostly for its technological innovation: it was a one-actor performance that made use of film to allow the actor in essence to play two different roles at the same time. The third vignette I enjoyed mostly for its staging. I think the story, as performed, came across a little maudlin -- and the fact that they marched a dog-skeleton marionette across the stage didn't help. :)

Okay. Wow. Apparently I had a lot on my mind about this show.
Mary Robinette Kowal
4. MaryRobinette
Normally I'm not a fan of heavily narrated shows, which the first and third were, but I thought that they worked remarkably well. I'm a big fan of object manipulation and thought that it was exquisitely used for the third piece.

(By the way. The dog was not a marionette. It was direct manipulation rod puppet, or modified bunraku. Sorry. Can't help it. Puppetry is my dayjob.)

During the second piece, at first I thought that the film projection was just a gimick, until he got the time machine working and then... oh and then it all paid off and was wonderful in the simplicity of the solution contrasted by the complexity of what it brought to the theme of the story.
Carlos Hernandez
5. Yokozuna
(By the way. The dog was not a marionette. It was direct manipulation rod puppet, or modified bunraku. Sorry. Can't help it. Puppetry is my dayjob.)


Forgiveness, please!
Alex Bledsoe
6. alexbledsoe
Since I live nowhere near NY, I can only comment on the general concepts, but I agree with Liz that SF and theatre should be much more amenable than they seem to be, since both rely on suspension of disbelief to a degree unmatched in most other fields. Accepting the reality of time travel isn't that different from saying, "Yes, those three artificial bushes are Burnam Wood come to Dunsinane."

We did at least have a production of Urinetown here (Madison, WI) last year, and it was awesome, although nothing in the advertising or commentary really mentioned its post-apocalyptic SF appeal.
Liz Gorinsky
7. TooMuchExposition
Dave @ 1: Hrm... I didn't think that it was officially sold out when I posted, but maybe I just missed the notice. I do wish I could have seen and reviewed it earlier, but unfortunately I had conflicts with all the earlier showings. But this is why we need an events page at tor.com; so you could have known about it regardless! Anyway, for future reference, it often is worth trying to do these things on standby: there are always no-shows, and smaller theatre companies are always eager to get as many people in as possible to see the show.

Yokozuna @ 3: You're right, in that I'm definitely not seeing enough Fringe shows for that line to be particularly meaningful praise, though it seemed worth stating nonetheless. My first year at Fringe was mind-stoppingly good, including The Black Rider and Clive Barker's Crazyface. So I've tried to go to a handful of shows (usually the buzz shows) every year since then, and have mostly been disappointed. I know I'm not doing it right, but there's so much amazing work going on on the New York stage in general that it's often hard to fit in guest shows that are only around for five performances at odd times. Thanks for your thoughts, though: it's always good to hear a wider perspective.

Alex @ 6: I'm glad you got a chance to see Urinetown. It's one of my favorite things in the world, and I've always thought it was a shame that so many of my SF friends have never experienced it.
Jason Lauderdale
8. Uncle_Pilot
Thanks for highlighting this show and taking the time to post about SF Theatre. I look forward to seeing more of these posts.

One theatre company to look out for is the House Theatre of Chicago. Their shows typically have a speculative fiction bent, whether it be superheroics, magic, time travel, etc. If you have the means to see one of their shows live, I highly recommend doing so.
Liz Gorinsky
9. TooMuchExposition
Uncle Pilot @ 8: Amusingly enough, I linked to The House Theatre in my opening paragraph, from the phrase "inventive stagings". I'm not in Chicago that often, so I've only seen a handful of their shows—Dave DaVinci, The Boy Detective Fails, and Hope Springs Infernal—but they've been almost uniformly great, and are definitely on my list of companies I will see whenever possible.
Carlos Hernandez
10. Yokozuna
TooMuchExposition @ 7:

Your response to my post

You're right, in that I'm definitely not seeing enough Fringe shows for that line to be particularly meaningful praise, though it seemed worth stating nonetheless.


tells me I accidentally came off like a pompous, sneering butthead. Apologies.

Also, let me add that this comment of yours I thought was super right-on:

I've tried to go to a handful of shows (usually the buzz shows) every year since then, and have mostly been disappointed.


Fringe rewards gluttons. There's usually almost nothing to go on when you pick shows to attend, and sometimes I have to say I have no idea why some shows get buzz. Based on the reviews of _The Fabulous Kane Sisters_, you might think it's the best show EVAR. It was, IMO, not. _Love is Dead_ and _Thoroughly Stupid Things_ weren't the biggest shows, but were fantastic. The only big-bill show I saw this year that lived up to the hype was _China: The Whole Enchilada._ Honorable mention goes to _Underwear: A Space Musical_: it was light fare, but fun and well-performed.
Mary Robinette Kowal
11. MaryRobinette
@ Yokozuna

No apologies needed! It's an occupational hazard on my end.
Jeffrey Richard
12. neutronjockey
Agent MRK keeps puppy skulls and rifles. I wouldn't cross her again if I were you.



Now...if we could just bring SFF theater to Oklahoma. Oklahoma! In Space!
Nina Lourie
13. supertailz
@ Yokozuna: Thank you for the comment about Thoroughly Stupid Things...having just closed the show last night and struck it today, it's nice to hear that people enjoyed our efforts! Gracias.
Pablo Defendini
14. pablodefendini
@ supertailz
Damn, foiled again. I was gonna go to Thoroughly Stupid Things yesterday, but scooter repair has taken over the weekend. Glad to hear it's been a success!
Nina Lourie
15. supertailz
@ Pablo - mhmm. You were missed. You'll have to make it up to me (and Meg) possibly with nommy fud at that place Meg took me to.

Also, come see us when we move to off-broadway!
C.D. Thomas
16. cdthomas
This is my dream:

To get enough scratch (and enough rights) to stage some of the nummier works of Kornbluth, just because he has this cozy place between Updike and Leiber and Burroughs (Wm.) that I'd love to explore.
Liz Gorinsky
17. TooMuchExposition
Yokozuna @ 10:
Your response to my post...tells me I accidentally came off like a pompous, sneering butthead. Apologies.

Goodness, no, not at all. I was just replying to a fair criticism with a sheepish response. I'm sorry if my tone accidentally conveyed anything other.

I tried the "throw a bunch of darts at the Fringe board and see what sticks" method for the one summer I spent in NYC during college, volunteering at Fringe Central for free admission. I didn't come out with anything that blew my mind, but wasn't scarred for life either. The only other surefire method I've found for picking shows is following through on companies I know already (which would have led me to Silent Theater's Noir this year, if time hadn't been so tight).

Supertailz @ 13:

So sorry I didn't get out to see Thoroughly Stupid Things, but it's exciting to hear that you'll be remounting it off-Broadway.
Jesse Garrison
18. Jesse Garrison
Wow- thanks for all of the comments. I had the honor of being a part of the show, and I'm so glad it's gotten such a positive response!

Just so you know- we were selected to be part of the Fringe Encore series! So, if you missed it in it's first run, you can catch it again at the Barrow Street Theater starting next week!

Hope to see you there!

-Jesse

www.fringenyc-encoreseries.com
www.softrains-theplay.com
Nina Lourie
19. supertailz
TooMuchExposition @17 ...Er, I may have overstated the case slightly. :) We're hoping to move o-b. We have backers auditions coming up...we'll see what happens. But I promise to tell everyone ever if it works out.

Jesse Garrison @18 Congrats! I thought I heard it announced last night and was excited, but I also could have been going crazy from award-party induced boredom. :) I'm highly excited to see your show and to see Blanche's!

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