PROVO — Science fiction plays are rare, likely because many of the genre’s staples, like laser guns and transporter devices, are hard to depict on stage. That has not stopped Brigham Young University from mounting the world premiere of a new science fiction play: Escape from Planet Death! To my pleasant surprise, Escape from Planet Death! is far more successful at executing the challenge of mixing sci-fi and live theatre than the last attempt I saw. Escape from Planet Death! production is unlike anything that Utah audiences usually see and worth the ticket price.
Escape from Planet Death! tells the story of a ship headed to Planet Genesis to establish a new human colony. When four crewmembers awaken from suspended animation, they find that most of the people on the ship are missing, their suspended animation pods smashed, and the ship’s principal robot going berserk. As they learn the fate of the other colonists and try to stop the robot, the characters embark on a journey of adventure, self-discovery, and social progress.
The synopsis makes Escape from Planet Death! sound like a typical sci-fi tale. In reality, playwright Tom Russell has created a satire of mid-20th century science fiction, and many of the sci-fi tropes of the era are lampooned. It is not necessary to be a science fiction fan to enjoy Escape from Planet Death!, though. A vague awareness of the original iterations of Flash Gordon, Lost in Space or Star Trek is sufficient.
In addition to writing the script, Tom Russell was co-director with Courtney Russell. Tom and Courtney Russell have staged Escape from Planet Death! as a radio play, which is befitting for a show based on a podcast. The principal actors read their lines in costume at stage right, while the foley artists create the sound effects at stage left. It is a simple arrangement that is spiced up with a series of projections in the style of comic book art (created by production illustrator Kollin Van Why) that are shown at center stage above the performers. These projections illustrate the action of the play and serve as an imagination aid for the audience.
Justine Kitteringham stars as Analyn, a support specialist on the ship. The important-sounding title both belies and accurately describes her job: she supports the main crew members, usually with just a word of cheerful encouragement. Pushed to the side by the men on the ship, Analyn gradually learns to express herself and becomes an essential contributor to the mission to defeat the robot. It was satisfying (if predictable) to watch this transition, as Kitteringham moved from playing a stereotypical ditsy blonde to an independent, assertive female hero.
Kyle Hollingshaus plays Harry, the leader of the surviving colonists. Hollingshaus portrays Harry as a caricature of a 1950s or 1960s sci-fi hero, with endless bravado and delusional levels of belief in his romantic appeal. This makes the moments that undercut Harry’s confidence especially humorous, such as when he confuses “mansplaining” and “manscaping,” or when female characters do not find him irresistible.
As Nick the hip teenage robot, Sarah McDonald continues the long line of gratingly precocious kids in science fiction. McDonald sounds exactly like Hollywood’s idea of a 13-year-old boy, and the energy and eagerness she brought to the role were refreshing. My favorite performance, though, came from Joey Wright as Colossus, the malfunctioning robot that threatens the humans. Wright has a booming voice that suits the melodramatic dialogue, and his heavy, forceful footsteps made him the perfect 500-pound robot. Wright was underused, though, because after escaping the spaceship, Colossus spends most of the play in his lair on the planet. Still, in the precious time he was on stage, Wright gave a wonderful imitation of an old sci-fi villain.
Most of the cast, though, are excellent voice actors, and their performances are complemented by the superb sound design from Stephen Jarvis and the team of live foley artists headed by J. P. Romney. Whether the script called for an attack from a mutant salamander, a massive number of metallic spiders, or blasting a zombie into outer space, the sound in Escape from Planet Death! was impeccable.
Indeed, for theatre people who have seen their share of radio plays, the live and recorded sound in Escape from Planet Death! makes this production worth seeing. Meanwhile, sci-fi fans will enjoy seeing how artists create the sound effects for planets and spaceships that don’t really exist. Unfortunately, the lights on the foley artists are too dim for much of the play, and I wish that lighting designer Jacob Anderson had helped the audience enjoy these performances as much as the acting performances.
Costume designer Rachel Olson gave the production the feel of being assembled from found materials. Colossus’s head is a salad bowl, and Harry’s “uniform” is a V-neck sweater on top of a turtleneck, with white jump rope segments sewn onto it. It is a cute aesthetic that both harkens back to the low budgets of early TV sci-fi and to the modern homemade costumes of ComicCon attendees.
Despite the superb sound and voice acting, the fun projections, and the strong technical elements, the play fails to reach escape velocity. Most theatre goers will find the story too tedious and self-important. Most science fiction fans have already seen the genre’s motifs satirized much more cleverly in Futurama, Galaxy Quest, Spaceballs, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. The plot also contradicts the script’s message of social progress, especially when all the diverse female characters (who are invariably competent) are killed off soon after they are introduced.
The script also can’t decide how woke it wants to be. At one extreme, there is a painfully awkward scene about the white men’s prejudices in which they show surprise that an African American woman (played by Nicole Newman) can be a scientist. On the other hand, the play ends with a plea to stop policing one another’s behaviors and put an end to cancel culture. Preachy sci-fi is not new, but Escape from Planet Death! fails to choose which sermon it wants to deliver.
Escape from Planet Death! is a memorable show that has its charms. It is not a flawless piece of theatre, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Its core audience will be science fiction fans and avid theatre-goers, but I hope other audiences will give the production a chance.