Are we free to make our own choices. or is someone pulling our strings? Even if the past is set in stone, can it be changed--or reinterpreted? Most importantly, is the end of the world truly and ending, or simply a new beginning?
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb explores those themes, and more, with boom, a play set on the eve of the world’s destruction by comet. But not everyone is doomed to die: a young biologist named Jules (Scott Sweatt) and his Craigslist date, Jo (Zofia Gozynska), are safe and secure in a bomb shelter. Or are they? Problems of food and water are the least of their worries, once it becomes clear that Jo has no intention of repopulating the planet, and certainly not with Jules, who, as it happens, is gay.
Moreover, Jo is one mean girl: even before the comet strike, when Jo thinks that she’s come over to Jules’ studio apartment (a converted bomb shelter) for hot sex, she’s wildly rough and aggressive, yanking Jules’ belt right off his waist and snapping it like a whip to indicate her impatience. (This is par for the course in the play’s gleeful catalogue of gender reversals.) When she discovers that Jules has an ulterior motive--the salvation of the human race--Jo is ready to leave at once. That’s where Barbara (Karen MacDonald) steps in.
Barbara is a white-coated technician standing off to one side with a bank of controls and a drum kit. As Jo heads for the door, Barbara twists a knob, and Jo tumbles senseless to the floor, accompanied by the sound of a motor winding down. Is Barbara controlling Jo? Or is Barbara simply re-creating events that happened long before? The play tells us that the latter is the case: Barbara, through careful research of the fossil record, has pieced together how the world ended 65 million years before, with Jules and Jo playing a crucial part in the survival of life on Earth. What we’re seeing is a live-action diorama--an exhibit peopled by two animatronic depictions. But Barbara’s supervisors are ready to pull the plug on the exhibit, citing its costs and lack of popularity--not to mention doubt as to its veracity.
Creation myths are always subject to a mixture of reverence and dramatization, fervent belief and skepticism, and the peculiar dogma Barbara sets out in boom is no exception. But Nachtrieb isn’t out to diminish anyone’s belief system; if anything, he seems to suggest that the universe is big enough, and the mysteries of creation compelling enough, to invite endless speculation. Indeed, the playwright has a wonderful time playing with ambiguity. Though Barbara seems to be the creator and controller of this little one-room world and its population of two (six, if you count the inhabitants of Jules’ fish tank), Barbara, too, answers to larger forces; indeed, all of life ultimately bows before the whims of the cosmos at large, which whips up organic molecules in primeval mud puddles, only to lob comets or asteroids at the resulting life forms later on. Moreover, Barbara may not have as firm a grasp on the diorama’s drama as she thinks: when Jules and Jo begin to depart from the exhibit’s long-unchanged script, Barbara--whose affect is half mad scientist, half artiste--looks on in wonder and delight. History cannot change... can it?
Sweatt and Gozynska start off as somewhat plastic--just the right touch for two synthetic people whose lines and actions are pre-programmed. Indeed, in the opening minutes they simply seem to be reciting their lines at one another rather than delivering them. As the play continues, however, they lose their mannered gloss and turn into raging, snarling flesh and blood people: the drama, and the comedy, of their situation takes on more meaning the grimier and angrier they get. It’s with a boom as startling as the comet strike that their passion finally ignites into something not fore-ordained, telling us that no matter what the past may be like, the future is still liable to deliver the unexpected.
Jarrod Bray’s scenic design and props dish up rich visual jokes: Jules’ apartment is also half laboratory, a look only underscored by cupboards filled with generically labeled goods (everything from batteries to booze). Chris Brusberg’s lighting tells us just when the world’s surface is flash-fried, but also speaks to the internal limitations the characters push against--particularly Jo, whose genetic makeup constrains her behavior in mysterious ways. Matt Griffin’s sound design provides ominous rumbling and upbeat music at the right cues. But it’s MacDonald’s turn as Barbara and Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s overall direction that illuminate the script’s tough questions and ready laugher with a light touch.
Boom plays through Saturday, March 13, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.
Tickets cost $25 general admission, and can be purchased online at www.newrep.org or via phone at 617-923-8487.
Performance schedule: Thursday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:00 p.m. There will also be a Wednesday evening performance at 8:00 on Feb. 24 and a Sunday evening performance at 8:00 p.m. on March 7.