The last tree. It’s a theme that symbolizes the environmental apocalypse at the heart of Alistair McDowall’s play X by Sideshow Theatre, directed by Jonathan Green. Some time in the future, perhaps not too distant, a small crew works on a British research base on Pluto (once known as planet X). It’s been weeks since they’ve heard from home base, despite repeated attempts.
“Three weeks of radio silence,“ Ray (H.B. Ward) says. He’s the graybeard and the team leader; Gilda (Sarah Price) is his second in command. All the systems seem to be fine, Ray says. But they’re supposed to come and get us, Gilda worries.
“They will come and get us,” Ray says, “Maybe they’re late, maybe something’s wrong, but they’ll come. And not because of us, but because you don’t send billions worth of gear to Pluto then forget about it…. We’ve done 18 months. A few more won’t kill us.”
In another scene, Clark (Gage Wallace) is telling Mattie (Krystal Ortiz) about a childhood memory. He was 6 years old and visiting with his uncle in South America. “South America is gone,” she says. “Not then. I was 6,” Clark points out. He describes the very tall object that had been loaded on a truck. His uncle lifted him up so he could touch it. “It was a big, tall thing,” Clark says, “with a main pillar bit in the middle and all those webs and lines on top of it and then the green bits.… It felt knobbly like rocks and the green bits were papery, like paper used to be.” Mattie says, “my mom used to tell me stories about trees. Fairy stories.”
That memory of the last tree is repeated throughout the course of X. And there are birds. Ray remembers birds. He has a set of bird whistles to practice on, so he won’t forget bird sounds on earth. But there’s nothing left back there, Ray says. “Trees. Birds. Animals. Countries gone. Everyone crammed too close together on what’s left of the land.”
Gilda challenges Clark, the comms officer, about their status. Clark tells her, “Every single transmission we’ve made has been marked received. … Our computer. Their computers. Everything works. Everything’s getting there. Broadcast, video, text. Fine. But no one’s sending anything back. No one’s on their end of the phone.”
The fifth crew member is Cole (Nate Whelden), who built a bomb shelter before joining the Pluto crew. When he’s not working, he does recreational maths.
The story proceeds for many months, then years. Xs appear and reappear. Crew members die; their bodies are stored in the freezer. Is there an optimistic note at the end? There’s a new generation on the Pluto research base now. Will they continue to live and remember trees and birds?
If X sounds like a science fiction story, think of it more as speculative fiction. It doesn’t take too much speculation to describe the environmental disaster that the Pluto crew left on earth. On our IRL earth, seas are expanding, water is beginning to eat up shores. And birds are vanishing. Nearly three billion of them have disappeared in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. Old growths of trees are being harvested by giant corporations and governments alike—and the Amazon is burning. (For a rich and beautiful story of trees and the people trying to save them, read Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. It’s brilliant, magical and sad.)
Sideshow Theatre’s X is a compelling play with excellent performances by the five crew members—and an extra character, identified as Voice (aka Young Mattie), played by Natalie Ortega. .H.B. Ward portrays a realistically glum Ray and both Sarah Price and Kristen Ortiz are dedicated and believable. There are times when not much is happening on stage balanced by times of surprising action, but director Green sets a pace that keeps the talky scenes exciting. Although it’s sometimes puzzling (especially at the end), your attention will be rewarded.
The bare-bones space lab design is by Yu Shibagaki, with projections by Paul Deziel and lighting by Jordan Kardasz. Michael Huey is composer and sound designer. Costumes are by Noël Huntzinger.
Alistair McDowall always has surprises for his audiences. In Pomona, his 2014 play recently staged by Steep Theatre, there was sex and violence, both real and comic book/role-playing game variety. In McDowall’s Brilliant Adventures, staged by Steep in 2015, there’s drug dealing, class warfare and a one-way time machine. In X, a 2016 play, there’s fear of a diminishing earth, barely fit for human habitation.
X by Sideshow Theatre continues thru October 27 at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. The play runs two hours including one intermission. Tickets are $20-30 for performances Thursday-Sunday.