Review: Boston Events Insider

'WHAT ONCE WE FELT' Brings Sci-Fi to Stage (4 Stars)

by Claudia A. Fox Tree, Boston Events Insider

WHAT ONCE WE FELT by Ann Marie Healy; Directed by Lindsay Eagle; Produced by Flat Earth Theatre at The Davis Square Theater, 255 Elm Street, Somerville, through March 22.

In the future of a once grand city similar to San Francisco or New York City, men are extinct and women rule the world. Sound good? Not so much. The value of the Science Fiction genre, in general, and the dystopian story, specifically, is that it offers commentary on today's real-world issues, often related to social hierarchies (classism, racism, sexism), societal ignorance (overpopulation, environmental destruction, totalitarian governments), and/or dependence on technology with the context of an entirely made up new world and reality. If you've never heard of, or don't understand, 'dystopia,' think of this phrase, "One person's utopia is another's dystopia."

The Davis Square Theater's New England premiere of Ann Marie Healy's WHAT ONCE WE FELT, directed by Lindsay Eagle, explores dystopian themes through complex and intriguing characters living in a post-modern "transitional" world which favors electronic books about talking dogs. Most obviously, there are the "haves" and "have-nots." Genetically engineered "Keepers," possess identity cards that access seemingly trivial things such as permission to walk across a bridge, as well as, life-altering privileges like ordering a pill on line to "download" one, just one, pregnancy. The fate of their counterpart, the "Tradepacks," includes getting any, and all, diseases with none of the medicine, so that the aforementioned Keepers may live (sounds like people with preexisting conditions being denied health care to me!).

Violet (Colleen Moore) begins the show by saying "We have only one choice to make: When. When to leave. And for that, we are special." She hauntingly appears in many scenes, though her actual character is somewhat of an enigma. The plot starts in the next scene when Macy O. Blonsky (Kelly Chick), a Keeper and an author, is late for a meeting with her agent, Astrid (Mary Ferrara), also a Keeper, at a local eatery. Macy decides to get some fresh air by crossing the bridge where we learn that checkpoint worker, Cheryl (Alissa Cordeiro), a Tradepack, has been so segregated from Keepers that she doesn't even know that Bistros still exist. Because the new world is still in "transition," not all the electronic functions, particularly around identity, are up and running, thereby limiting the ability for those in power to police the social caste system.

Emily Kaye Lazzaro plays Claire Monsoon, capturing the cold, calculating, not-going-to-give-anything-away attitude of a woman who has become a publishing house giant. Even nine months pregnant, she manages to ignore all baby questions as if she isn't showing. Not surprisingly, the genre of science fiction is offering commentary of today's women, who, pregnant or not, may have to ignore their femaleness just to keep their job and/or spot at the top.

Meredith Saran plays Laura, the line editor assistant to Ms. Monsoon. She worries that Macy's book about Tradepacks might encourage the resistance movement, and offers to do some "slight revisions" to make it perfect. Perfection is a goal in this new society, starting with genetically engineered babies. Ms. Saran does an excellent job portraying the slippery friend who gets you to trust them and then gets credit for your work, too. Of course "perfection" is being sought in today's society as well, with exercise trends, liposuction, and plastic surgery. Just look at the aging Hollywood starlet to see that losing beauty translates into losing acting roles and, for some, respect in the industry.

Babies are certainly part of the subplot in WHAT ONCE WE FELT. Franny (Kamela Dolinova) and Benita (Nicole Dunn) are a professional couple deciding on whether or not to download a child. Ms. Dunn's anxiousness about her one time pregnancy opportunity, while tring to convince her reluctant partner that the time is now, comes across in her rants as she paces across the stage. Ms. Dolinova stretches her acting skills by playing two characters, transforming her stature, movements, and voice quality expertly. Ms. Dolinova portrays Franny, the one character who has the greatest transformation, in my opinion, during the production. The one character who stands by the decision she has made, no matter what the consequences. She also portrays Yarrow, who with a few well-timed coughs seems to suddenly appear in the audience. Yarrow is gravely ill and wears an oxygen tank. Yarrow is in no way in control of her life and relies on her daughter, checkpoint worker, Cheryl, for comfort and the limited medical assistance she can provide, which makes me wonder where they got that oxygen tank? Maybe the resistance movement has a secret hoard of medical equipment?

One highlight of this show is its unique integration of books, not only in the theme of who deserves to be "heard," but also in the dowel machinery enabled backdrop created by Leigh Downes, the Technical Director. Now it's a library full of books, now it's a new scene. The books opened up into hand-painted images that delivered the new setting, just by Violet turning the pages of a few novels.

WHAT ONCE WE FELT is complex and successfully uses a small cast of intense characters, who are put in situations with others and expected to deal with typical life dilemmas (deciding to start a family, keeping one's job, retaining integrity of one's art/writing), to show viewers a futuristic world within a short theatrical timeframe. It struggles a bit to hold all the parts together. Continuity was lost for me when I tried to figure out what Macy had actually written. If it was about Tradepacks, how did she get this information? If she didn't care for Tradepacks, often ignoring them in her daily life, why did she write about them? Maybe this was another dystopian theme, folks with privilege don't need to notice the lower caste, but feel entitled to write about them and tell their story. Some people will relate to the themes of marginalization in this play. Readers will relate to the importance of printed books. Artists will relate to wanting to have and preserve one's voice in one's work. Others might agree that we must "digitize in order to synthesize."

College students were well-represented. Keep in mind that due to strong language, the show is not recommended for children, though older teenagers with their parents may enjoy the currently popular dystopian theme.