Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"boom": a cosmic comedy at B Street

Sacramento’s awesome B Street Theatre now ventures to bring “boom” (with lower-case “b”) to its main stage. In its announcement, B Street refers to the play as an “apocalyptic comedy,” and the play lives up to its title.

Along with theologians and scientists, poets are drawn to speculate on how the universe came to be and how it will end. In his “The Hollow Men” T.S. Eliot declared that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” In “Fire and Ice” Robert Frost concluded that both are “great, and would suffice.” In “boom,” Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s dark comedy, the grand catastrophe comes from a collision with a comet. (Nachtrieb, incidentally, is fast becoming a hot name in theater circles.)

“In college I majored in both theater and biology,” he notes, “and I think this play might be an attempt to understand the relationship between the two.” With the play’s sometimes disconcerting absurdist undertones, he does stimulate us to think. Directed by Michael Stevenson, the play features three able actors. Peter Story becomes Jules, a graduate student in biology. Sarah Aili, in her B Street debut, is Jo, a troubled undergraduate in journalism. And Jamie Jones assumes the mysterious role of Barbara, servant of an undefined higher power and the play’s chorus.

The setting is an underground university laboratory that once was a bomb shelter. It also serves as Jules’ home, where he dotes on the fish he nurtures in an aquarium. Jo arrives in response to his personal ad, where he declares, “I love kissing, body contact, oral sex, and intensely significant coupling.”

Jo demands “Sex! Now!” as Nachtrieb plunges into role reversal, where Jo becomes the pursuer and Jules the quarry as he protests that he’s not only a virgin but a homosexual. They find themselves trapped on Samantha Reno’s eerie set, with what looks like a giant spider web above and a metal door, like a submarine hatch, at the rear.

Despite his rejection of her advances, Jules won’t let Jo leave. Barbara meanwhile comments amid her loud timpani in the background, where she demonstrates her ability to knock people out and raise them up again. After Jo and Jules reveal their past lives to each other, he discloses his big secret: a comet is just moments away from colliding with Earth and ending all life upon it—at least all that’s on the surface. All his preparations are aimed at survival.

Although the script treats the play as a one-act, B Street offers the audience an intermission, afterward continuing in the aftermath of the cataclysm. Jules has planned for the occasion with food and a large supply of tampons and diapers. But Jo resists her new role in Jules’ strategy, to restore the human race through procreation. He then becomes the champion of life; she the apostle of death.

In Barbara’s words we get “the drama of survival.” Though Jules acquiesces to Jo’s suicidal aims, she ultimately fails to strangle herself with a plastic bag over her head. She screams at him: “STOP! BEING! OPTIMISTIC!”

But he blithely retorts, “Biology is optimism.” And although Barbara’s undefined bosses are ready to give up, life’s essential goal of staying alive prevails. We learn about past catastrophes, in prehistoric times long before humanity appeared. But something always seems to bring life back.

If there is any flaw in the play, it’s the slight miscasting of Peter Story as Jules, who according to the script should be 28, an appropriate age for a graduate student. But his skill as an actor can make him seem much younger. Jones makes the most of her compelling role as a quasi-goddess, and Aili’s versatility is a real find.

This mind-bending play is clearly not for everyone, especially youngsters. But for those attuned to serious theater, it can be exalting—and a ringing call to optimism.

“boom” continues on the B Street Main Stage through February 21 at 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m. Matinees are Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18-$30. Student and senior discounts are available. $5 student rush tickets are also available with valid student ID. Call (916) 443-5300. See also www.bstreettheatre.org.

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