The Apocalypse Comes to Woodlawn Park: A Live Production of Star Trek‘s “Amok Time”

“Captain, you’re asking me to fight with equipment which isn’t far ahead of silver cardboard and black spray-painted broom handles …”

When I heard that a group of local actors/Star Trek fans was recreating Theodore Sturgeon’s famous “Amok Time” episode as an open-air theater production, I was excited—though as a still-disaffected Gen-Xer, this excitement had more to do with the promise of some delightfully high-camp rather than the prospect of taking in a good bit of drama en plein air. And a broke-ass Gen-Xer, the fact that it was free made me rub my hands together like Scrooge McDuck. I tried to get my family to share my excitement. Free! Campy! In a park! My 11-year old daughter sighed with eye-rolling sarcasm.

“It’s not going to be a bunch of geeks, is it?”

My husband barked a throaty guffaw which my daughter did not find reassuring.

“Oh no, my darling,” I quickly interrupted, glaring at my husband. “There is absolutely no chance that a bunch of fans putting on a free community-theater performance of a Star Trek episode in a park amphitheater could be geeky in any way.”

She wasn’t convinced. She said she wanted to stay home and play Sims. I told her no daughter of mine was staying home to play Sims when there was a live production of “Amok Time” playing in a park across town. She was getting older, and it was high time she learned what Ponn Farr was all about. She said Star Trek was dumb and stupid. I said “Not all of it; only Enterprise.” She held her ground, asserting that William Shatner couldn’t act. I bit the back of my fist, Stella Dallas style. Finally, I had no choice but to deploy the atomic bomb of mom-power: Get in the damn car or stay home and clean up your room.

Off we went.

It was a lovely summer day, the middle of a Portland heat wave. The audience of 200+ was made up of tattooed hipsters in cone-shaped Chinese hats, tree-hugging hippies lying on grandma-quilts, purple-haired DIYers knitting or crocheting or tatting whatever the hell it is they do, and yes … a few clearly identifiable fen. Overall, a gathering of more earnest, creative, enthusiastic types one would be hard pressed to find outside of a Zine Symposium. The air was heavy with the smell of excitement, anticipation, and warm Three-buck Chuck. I suddenly realized what I was witnessing. A glimpse of what entertainment becomes after the apocalypse, after television and cell-phones and fancy-little notebook computers and all our silly trappings of civilization are stripped away, and all that remains is the sweet, sweet memory of when shit actually worked. Just like the cargo-cult stories of Captain Walker told by the children in “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” or the way Ben Stiller was forced by Vietnamese heroin traffickers to reenact the entire production of “Simple Jack” with a coconut on his head in “Tropic Thunder,” there’s something about a live-theater community production of a television episode that suggests complete cultural collapse.

But in this case, a sweet, fun, joyful kind of cultural collapse. Apocalypse lite, with a side of kum-ba-yah and some mashed parsnips from someone’s organic garden. More eutopic than dystopic, full of neighborly spirit, backyard chicken coops, radically modded bicycles and homemade solar panels. If civilization must collapse, it could do worse.

“He called me Christine!”

As to the production itself, it was indeed sufficiently camp to delight my jaded heart. The iconic Captain’s Chair was made of a pleather swivel office chair fared in gray plywood (which transformed into a sickbay exam table when draped with grey cloth, and later into T’Pau’s dais when draped with red cloth). Nurse Chapel’s heartfelt offering of Plomein soup was transported in an electroplated church-kitchen chafing dish. And I swear the Ahn’woon was made of two Red-Bull cans duct-taped to either end of one of those ribbons used by rhythmic gymnasts. According to one Web source, the troupe had a $1,000 budget for the production. I couldn’t quite see where the money had been spent. My guesses are: Christine Chapel’s awesome wig, an epic Goodwill run involving someone’s dad’s borrowed pickup, and rental on the awesome Korg synthesizer which replicated the theme music and sound effects with delightful woo-woo accuracy.

The moment all the K/S fans in the audience had been waiting for …

Where the camp wasn’t was in the acting. The performers took the material seriously and didn’t play it for laughs except where appropriate. I think this was an excellent choice. Because when you have a concept so inherently camp, there’s a danger in taking it too far, like dressing up RuPaul in red white and blue sequins, putting her aboard a US Navy Destroyer astride a 5-inch deck gun, and surrounding her with seamen in Jean-Paul Gaultier shorts. There is such a thing as too much. The wonderfully-deep-voiced Jesse Graff, as Spock, channeled the iconic Vulcan struggling with a fatal case of blue-balls perfectly. And Ryan Castro as Chekov made the most of his limited lines with a spot-on interpretation of Walter Koenig’s infamous “Russian” accent. It appears Mr. Castro is the troupe’s go-to guy for accents; he’ll be playing Khan Noonien Singh next summer, when Atomic Arts return to Woodlawn Park with their rendition of “Space Seed.” It is a fine choice of material, though “The Way To Eden” could have been so meta, man—especially if did up the space-hippies in full-sleeve tats, helix piercings, and Voodoo donut t-shirts. That would have shown the Herberts!

I would heartily recommend, were you in Portland, that you go catch a performance of “Amok Time.” However, sadly, the performances have now ended, and you will have to wait until next summer. But that gives you plenty of time to buy some Three Buck Chuck and brush up on your tatting. Oh, and OregonLive has a hilarious video sampler & interview with the actors here. You must watch it. The guy with the bike is priceless.

Oh, and for the record? My daughter grudgingly admitted that she liked the show, and took back everything she ever said about William Shatner.

I question her sincerity.

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