Nearly six months ago, I took the subway out to a small theater in Queens to see Advance Man, the first play in a science-fiction trilogy from one of my favorite indie playwrights. At the time, I couldn’t fathom returning in April and June for the next two installments; I didn’t even know if I would be interested in investing my time and energy. But now that Mac Rogers’ The Honeycomb Trilogy is over, I’ve had a more fulfilling sci-fi experience than recent films like Prometheus could give me. Fulfilling because these three plays have presented a radically transformed Earth without ever resorting to cheesy or fake storytelling, and have made us care for every flawed, flesh-and-blood citizen that’s crossed that stage.
Set eight years after 51 human survivors drank poisonous “bug juice” and used their bodies to blow up their alien masters’ Honeycomb structures in Blast Radius, Sovereign reunites battle-scarred Governor Ronnie Cooke (Hanna Cheek) with her brother Abbie (Stephen Heskett), humanity’s most notorious war criminal. He’s deposited on her doorstep in the midst of what used to be Florida rebuilding itself, and the hard-worn Governor has no choice but to put her brother to death. But not before he receives a fair trialbecause after all, to overlook such customs would be inhumane.
You’ll want to read my prior reviews to get up to speed on who’s who, but Abbie and Ronnie are the constants for each play. Along with Ronnie’s friend and mentor Fee (Sara Thigpen), they’re the only survivors from Blast Radius. Sovereign is the smallest cast of the three plays, and each character is perfectly utilized, however briefly. The prior play gave us a cast of warriors; here, Ronnie is surrounded by civil servants. Matt Golden and Medina Senghore are fascinating polar opposites as (respectively) Ronnie’s ambitious but milquetoast-y manager Zander and public defender Tanya. C.L. Weatherstone appears only in the opening scene as a human settler named Budeen, but without his emotionally resonant monologue, we wouldn’t be able to fathom how humans are relearning their civilized ways.
Likely the most daunting aspect for newbies is whether they’ll be able to keep up with the twenty-plus years of mythology. Thankfully, Gideon Productions has set up a handy “Here’s What You Missed” sign outside the theater; if you get there early, be sure to pore over the detailed history of Advance Man and Blast Radius. Even though the characters speak briskly and unapologetically in their unique sci-fi jargon, you catch on quickly. Anyway, Sovereign shows us Earth in a time of rebuilding, so you’re in good company: Even the characters are relearning old customs.
Tripping up Abbie’s impromptu war crimes trial is the presence of his lover Claret (Erin Jerozal), a “skin”a bug that has transferred its consciousness into a human body, simultaneously obliterating the weak human mind and being cut off from the hive mind of the Honeycomb. Not to mention Ronnie’s guards Wilkie (Neimah Djourabchi) and Sharp (Daryl Lathon) reporting that they hear the sounds of bugs outside the Cookes’ suburban home…
Advance Man and Blast Radius were both characterized by long stretches of time and months of careful planning. In a welcome shift, Sovereign drops this format and endeavors to hit real time as much as possible: We experience the slow-ticking hours until dawn, during which Ronnie and her makeshift council judge Abbie for his war crimes. But while the trial atmosphere of Act 1 is compelling, it’s even more engaging when we witness Ronnie’s laws fall apart under Abbie’s impassioned questioning.
The relationships on display here aren’t centered on love the way Blast Radius was with its emotional group wedding at the play’s climax. Fee’s connection to Ronnie has withered to almost solely obligation because they’re the only ones left after the group sacrifice; her service is tinged with bitterness since she’s raising Ronnie’s children and not her own. When it comes to romance in the play, there’s always an agenda. You never quite believe that Abbie doesn’t have an ulterior motive in impregnating Claret; just as babies were the admission fee to House 4 (and the furtive guerilla planning) in Blast Radius, in Sovereign they carry an even further-reaching significance.
Ronnie has always been a sexual creature since she was a teenager in Advance Man, so it’s not surprising that she would be sleeping with her guard Wilkie. But it’s painfully obvious that he’s never going to be more than a puppydog distraction. How could Ronnie and Abbie love anyone as much as they did Peck and Conor? Their only option is to love each other.
I’m sure that there’s plenty of science fiction that centers on the relationship between brothers and sisters, but aside from Luke and Leia I can’t think of another famous sibling duo off the top of my head. Ronnie and Abbie’s relationship is the most fascinating dynamic out of all three plays and the many characters.
What began as typical sibling rivalry brought on by differencesRonnie the stalwart protector, Abbie the misunderstood artisthas transformed into two radically different worldviews concerning our alien cohabitors. Amazingly, Rogers has laid the groundwork so thoroughly for both arguments that we find our allegiance shifting from one Cooke sibling to the next within the span of the same page. Even two decades later, Ronnie pushes to completely eradicate these alien invaders; she has the human knee-jerk reaction to an infestation of bugs, even if they’re three times her size and seep poison. Abbie may be the more evolved human in that he works slavishly to unite humans and bugs, recognizing how combining the strengths of each (agile human bodies and quick-witted bug minds) can guarantee some compromise of survival.
I was apprehensive to see how the two new actors would take over the roles from Becky Byers and David Rosenblatt, but the new casting has proven itself to be effective in helping us to reshape our views of Ronnie and Abbie. We have to grasp how much Ronnie has changed since sending her husband allies to their deaths, how her passion has been replaced with bitterness. (Honestly, she’s a bit of a c-.) And since it’s been at least five years since she last saw her brother, it makes sense that Abbie would look like a stranger.
Further grounding the story is the way in which Rogers has brought everything full circle. Seemingly trivial details from Advance Man, like Abbie and Ronnie’s joking conversation about “finger-blasting,” are resurrected at the perfect moment. The play’s conclusion is unbelievably organic and so fitting.
Don’t miss Sovereign. More than a love of sci-fi, more than faithful adherence to the last five hours of this trilogy, what you need most is an open mind and your own vivid childhood memories of the scary and alien. Armed with that, you’ll fall for Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy the way so many others have.
Sovereign runs through July 1st at the Secret Theatre in Queens (44-02 23rd Street), New York City, Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., plus Wednesday June 27th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors.
Photos: Deborah Alexander
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.