In a rush of oft-repeated words, The Listener sits in her studio, a conning tower of junk electronics, and broadcasts: “Calling anyone who is anyone out there, do you read me?”
Junk City, the earth of the future, is strewn with just that—junk. It is the principal feature of Melpomene Katakalos’ set (lit by Heather Basarab), somewhere between a funk sculpture and a well-landscaped dump, for Crowded Fire’s production of Liz Duffy Adams’ eponymous play, The Listener—which the author and director Kent Nicholson note could have been inspired in part by the weather-beaten farm structures and site-specific artworks “designed to decay” at the Djerassi Foundation retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Duffy started writing the play. That, and articles about enormous dumps in the Third World where scavengers live, and the “brutal abandonment” of New Orleans.
The scavengers in this dump are Smak (Michael Moran) and Jelly (Rami Margron), talking in a street slang without streets that’s momentarily reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, or of the post-Gertrude Stein experiments with naive speech playwright Irene Maria Fornes essayed during the ’80s and ’90s. Their costumes (by Louise Jarmilowicz) are grungy post-Punk, or beach bum, in contrast to the vaguely tribal wear of The Listener (Juliet Tanner) and the hieratic Namer (Lawrence Radecker).
Into this forlorn scape tumbles John (Cole Alexander Smith), captured by Smak and Jelly when his one-man craft from “Nearth” (the moon, where the more privileged of Humanity have fled) touched down, not in answer to Listener’s faintly-broadcast call, but as part of a Nearth faction that “wants to help,” however patronizingly, versus another clique that would sooner destroy the “backwards” remnants of those left behind in what John identifies as a toxic environment. (For a change, the alien who shows up to help is another human.)
The couple of scavengers bring John in like an unidentified gadget, and he’s casually brutalized while passed onto Namer, a kind of priest who “names” the unfamiliar and recites the myth of humanity’s great divide and its consequences, which John recognizes as a reworking of the same history he’s familiar with in technocratic terms.
Namer names, and dictates. Listener listens—and ceaselessly broadcasts, in hope of contacting others, the existence of which Namer discounts, so that the strict routine and hierarchy of Junk City might be diversified by other voices, other presences.
The metaphor, or simile, is clear and the parallels to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi of the ’50s and ’60s are cited in the program: Bradbury, Delaney, LeGuin (as well as C.J. Cherryh, publishing since the mid-’70s); A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Boy and His Dog also come to mind.
Shotgun Players produced Duffy’s Dog Act in 2004 (also directed by Nicholson, with Rami Magron in the cast, which the author thought would be her last post-apocalyptic play), somewhat more successful as a low-down futuristic parable. The simplicity of the similes doesn’t carry the weight or suggest the irony of Wells’ struggle of grotesque castes in The Time Machine, or of Chestertonian humor (found more recently in TV’s The Prisoner and the film The Man Who Fell to Earth), both authors who Jose Luis Borges identified as true storytellers for the future. Other examples would include the strange, too familiar but empty world of M. K. Shiel’s 1930s post-apocalyptic The Purple Cloud—and much of Poe, for that matter.
Crowded Fire emphasizes high production values throughout, including Cliff Caruthers’ music and sound design and the stage movement, coached by Matthew Graham Smith. The cast uniformly supports the tone, quiet amid angst and menace, with good performances, especially Crowded Fire co-founderJuliet Tanner’s in the title role, bringing subtly stated sensitivity and humor to small moments, as she so often does.
Presented by the Crowded Fire Theater Company at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 31.
Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $15-$25. (415) 433-1235. crowdedfire.org.