Timur Kocak, Aaron Simon Gross, and Amy Temple in The Realm. Photo by Sam Hough.
BOTTOM LINE: A disturbing story about the future; the script is poetic and the performances are memorable.
Why do all stories about the future predict doom and gloom? With the exception of The Jetsons, I can’t think of one measly story that depicts the future as a happy time, with technological advancements making life easier, and bright, sunny days ahead. Instead, we have Anthem, Ender’s Game, "Harrison Bergeron," The War of the Worlds, even the musical Urinetown, all predicting the end of the world as we know it in the not too distant future. Resources are scarce, fear is overriding, and Armageddon is seconds away. The subject matter itself is so commonplace, in virtually every form of entertainment, that this list goes on…and on…and on.
Sarah Myers’s new play, The Realm, isn’t any more optimistic. Life has ceased to be sustainable on the surface of the Earth, and the human race takes to living underground, rationing food and water as a means of maintaining existence. In a labyrinth of sewer tunnels and dank passages, the "Realm" is both the habitation and way of life in the year…well…in the future. With a completely altered lifestyle comes stricter governmental regulations to make sure no one rebels – those who reject the Realm and choose to live aboveground are called Revolters and are ostracized from their families. How long the characters have been in the Realm is vague. But since they all seem to remember life before their underground world came to fruition, it’s likely that the drastic adaptation has only just become the norm. And the children aren’t happy about it.
The Realm tells the story of Kansas (Emily Olson) and James (Aaron Simon Gross), two teenagers who reject the dictatorial nature of the Realm and try to escape their captivity to live on the surface of the earth once again. They are aware of the confinement the Realm demands: complete and total submission (the control of language is used as a weapon and words are eliminated from memory so residents only have a limited vocabulary with which to understand their existence). They struggle to find freedom but are oppressed by Ms. Analyst (Jessica Pohly), one of the cult-like leaders of the Realm. James takes solace knowing that his birth mother Laura (Amy Bodnar) has been living as a Revolter and is out there somewhere waiting to be reunited with her son. James’s stepmother and father are very content to live in the Realm, and they see James as just a rebellious teenager. But then again, they have been mentally beaten into submission.
What The Realm does well is present a world where fantasy comes dangerously close to reality. The suggestion that removing language can be a tool of oppression is frighteningly astute – after all, ignorance can be bliss, and incredibly dangerous at the same time. The Wild Project serves as a satisfactory space for the production - the audience is comfortably removed from the stressful discourse on stage but the playing space itself suggests a confinement on the verge of claustrophobia. The performances are all first-rate and the cast seems to understand the gravity behind the words they speak. Both Olson and Gross get the innocence of their children-on-a-mission agendas and their sincerity is both enchanting and sad.
Where the play veers off track is in the subtlety of the text. I’m sure it reads like a gloriously poetic piece of prose. Myers’s words are lyrical and introspective throughout the play, giving each character an eerie sense of their reality. But the ethereal and suggestive nature of it all makes the play itself anything but real; as a result, the struggles of the people involved are themselves only a façade. At least, I was never able to fully invest in the story; rather I could only watch the plot unfold as a third-party spectator sitting in an off-off-Broadway theatre. With a fantastical story like this, I wanted to be swept away into the world of the Realm, and I never got there.
If futuristic, what-if hypotheses are your bag (and I know there is a solid sci-fi fan base out there), this show is one to see. It brings up an intriguing perspective and certainly opens the door for discussion and interpretation after the fact. There is much to consider with such deep subject matter. Director Jessica Fisch keeps the production creepy, effectively incorporating clear, plastic masks worn by the Realm’s compliant citizens. The result is an unsettling, yet intriguing theatrical experience.
(The Realm plays through April 18th at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at therealmplay.com.)