Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play, written by Ken LaZebnik, addresses a mix of contemporary concerns: global warming, immigration, encroaching technology, and corporate greed, with the widespread shift to autonomous self-driving vehicles in 2022 emerging as a solution, at least in part, to those intertwined dilemmas. However, as is the way these things go, the autonomous vehicles bring new problems to the landscape, cautioning the viewer to be skeptical of solutions that sound too good to be true.
The scripted play is just half, if that, of what Autonomy is about. The show was presented in an immersive context that was its own form of theatrical experience. Caravans of five golf carts left a staging area every 10 minutes, with a capacity of about 24 audience members per group. Each caravan stopped at nine performance stages where a ten-minute scene was presented, the scenes in aggregate making up the play. A personal listening device enabled audience members to hear the dialogue at each scene. As one caravan moved on from the scene, another one arrived, and the actors there repeated their scene. If it sounds complicated, it was, but the brilliant minds at Mixed Blood had it all running smoothly.
A couple of seasons ago, Mixed Blood presented Safe at Home, a walk-through experience that took over newly opened CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team. Like Autonomy, Safe at Home was structured with nine performance stages, the cast at each stage repeating their scene as a new audience group was ushered in on foot. Autonomy upped the ante with motorized transport. The floor of the RiverCentre was lined with colored lights to direct drivers from scene to scene, following a circuitous path something like the trail followed when playing the board game Candy Land.
As a bonus, between the performance stages, there were cars, cars, cars: 36 automobiles provided by area collectors, everything from a 1932 Ford Coupe to a set of 2018 Teslas, with such gems as a 1966 Corvette, a 1955 Thunderbird, and a 1981 DeLorean. Aside from the "Oh, wow!" factor in gawking at these awesome, gorgeous cars, their presence made the point that auto design can be an art form in its own right. Their seductive, shiny exterior was the flip side of their environmental and social cost to a civilization dependent on privately owned automobiles using vast amounts of fossil fuel and emitting fumes that are a leading cause of climate change. We love these cars, but we also know that they are doing us in.
The story behind Autonomy is both kind of cool and very disjointed. It follows seventeen-year-old Gabby Reyes, an undocumented immigrant in the American Midwest, who is a wiz at computer code writing. When Gabby's long-haul truck driver Dad is killed at the hand of a careless driver, she vows to develop software to make autonomous vehicles that can communicate to one another, thereby avoiding collisions, so that no one else has to suffer a loss such as hers.
Elsewhere, global warming allows for the release of pathogens that had been frozen beneath the Arctic permafrost, threatening widespread pandemics; a patient waiting for a heart transplant bewails the lack of available hearts with the great reduction in fatalities from traffic accidents since the advent of autonomous cars; and Gabby's plan for her life-saving software to be available at no cost is stymied by the ruthlessness of multinational corporations. One scene, a satiric plot detour, depicted a conversation on video between three "celebrity" vehicles: an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, a Mr. Peanut car, and a Red Bull car with a giant can mounted atop. The climax of the narrative draws on actors from several of the previous scenes and was presented on screen in a drive-in movie setting. Settings, by the way, were cleverly designed by Anna Robinson to work within the confines of the allotted playing spaces.
With lights flashing, noise and music (from composer Eric Mayson) coming from all directions, and the festive atmosphere of a theme park, it was a challenge for actors to give stand-out performances, but Reuler had assembled a roster of leading Twin Cities talents who gave it their all. Because Gabby appeared in three scenes, that character was triple-cast. For the caravan I travelled with, Malachi Caballero played Gabby, giving a strong, impassioned performance as a young woman propelled by grief over her father's death to make a difference, while terrified of being caught by immigration authorities.
Michael Laskin and Kate Fuglei made their scene between a 92-year-old man with failing vision who was determined to keep driving and his exasperated ophthalmologist into a splendid 10-minute play of its own. Stephen Yoakam, Jeffrey Hatcher and Joy Dolo lent their voices to the roles of Oscar Mayer, Mr. Peanut, and Red (Bull), respectively, to grand effect. Randy Reyes, Nathan Barlow and Ansa Akyea were chilling as corporate heavies closing their claws in on Gabby's idealism. The final stage had Harry Waters Jr. doing a slick infomercial summarizing the glories of autonomous vehicles we were to have gleaned, with a large hint of subversive irony in his all-too polished delivery.
A tremendous amount of effort went into staging Autonomy, and it was clearly a labor of love for Reuler and his Mixed Blood team. It was a wonderful form of theater experience, with the mode of presentation and environment as much a part of the show as the scripted narrative. It was great fun, and reflected a huge storehouse of ingenuity. The narrative at the heart of the event, the play itself, came across as panels from a graphic novel, making their plot points and moving quickly to the next episode. Were it presented straightforward in Mixed Blood's Alan Page Auditorium, it would have been unlikely to work. The dialogue was well crafted enough, and individual scenes were compelling, but they were disjointed and failed to make a compelling or credible whole.
That said, the fact that the play was imbedded in the stimulating drive-through theater environment made all the difference. As we motored through, we brought the images that preceded each new scene with us, like glimpses of a passing landscape that our minds forged into a panoramic image of the whole. Autonomy was a theater experience not likely to ever be forgotten by those who took the journey.
Autonomy, May 9, 2019, by Mixed Blood Theatre at the RiverCentre in Saint Paul MN. For information on future Mixed Blood productions call 612-338-6331 or visit www.mixedblood.com.
Playwright: Ken LaZebnik; Directed by: Jack Reuler; Set and Media Design: Anna Robinson; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Composer: Eric Mayson; Stage Managers: Chris Code and Chris Schweiger.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Khalil), Nathan Barlow (Ziko Antilles), Malachi Caballero * (Gabby Reyes), Rainbow Dickerson (Juniper), James Denton (Alexi), Joy Dolo (voice of Red), Kate Fuglei (Amy Anderson), Jeffrey Hatcher (voice of Mr. Peanut), Isabella LaBlanc * (Gabby Reyes), Juan Rivera Lebron (C.J. Reyes), Michael Laskin (Herb Schecter), Kiko Laureano * (Gabby Reyes); Raúl Ramos (Uncle Benny), Tom Reed (Karl), Randy Reyes (Caleb), Taj Reuler (Visitor), Harry Waters Jr. (MC), Stephen Yoakam (voice of Oscar Meyer), Bruce A. Young (Tip Donnelly).
* the role of Gabby was triple-cast