Urbanite Brings Science Fiction Drama with "Pilgrims"

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUL 14, 2017

Urbanite Theatre takes audiences to the far reaches of space in order to probe the innermost workings of the human psyche with the regional premiere of Pilgrims, opening August 4. Written by Claire Kiechel (currently writing for the Netflix science fiction series The OA) and directed by Obie Award-winner Carl Forsman, the production stars Urbanite co-founder Brendan Ragan and, in her Urbanite debut, Betsy Helmer as two colonists aboard an interstellar spaceship, forced in close proximity by an unexpected quarantine.

A self-proclaimed science fiction nerd, Forsman leapt at the opportunity to direct Pilgrims, calling it “a dream.” Science fiction is rare on the stage, largely because of the genre’s traditional reliance on visual effects as a chief selling point. “And the stage is a language-based medium,” says Forsman. “So naturally there’s a bit of a disconnect.” Still, notable examples can be found, such as the 1920 play from Czech playwright Karel Capek, R.U.R., or “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the language and the genre. But Kiechel squared that circle, and more than the thrill of science fiction, Forsman found a wildly inventive story full of “terrific” writing.

“At its core, it’s a very human drama,” says Forsman, and the story revolves around the emotions and arcs of characters, with the science fiction aspect more an exciting setting than the point of the production. The point, says Forsman, is the two people locked in a room but still struggling to connect—this veteran soldier and young woman with a secretive past. “And the two are meeting at a moment when they’re both running from trauma,” he says. Studying the history of post-traumatic stress disorder while preparing for the play, he finds real-life parallels. Pilgrims is not about villains, but troubled people trying their best. Forsman calls it “sincerity,” and it’s something he looks for in all his stories.

A codeword of sorts for believing in vulnerability and compassion and generosity, Forsman says, the concept developed in response to the extreme pessimism and cynicism about human nature that he saw too often passed off as shorthand for truth. People aren’t monsters, in Forsman’s eyes, just flawed, and sometimes tragically so. But most try to be as good as they can be. The drama, as in Pilgrims, lies in whether they succeed. “These two characters are trying to connect,” he says, “but the question remains if they can.”

And to properly encapsulate this drama, Urbanite’s black box setup aligns perfectly. “It’s a play about claustrophobia and being trapped,” says Forsman. “So a little room like this is perfect.”

Opening August 4 at Urbanite Theatre, Pilgrims runs through September 10.

Pictured: Director Carl Forsman. Photo courtesy of Urbanite Theatre.

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