Review: In After the Blast, a Play About Environmental Disaster, a Robot Named Arthur Steals the Show

Zoe Kazan’s play After the Blast is set a few generations in the future—underground. An environmental disaster has made “upstairs” unlivable and some people were able to escape to a new below-ground world, bringing only a few precious possessions. Now fertility is controlled to keep the population in balance. The play focuses on the lives of Oliver and Anna, who desperately want to have a baby but so far have failed to receive approval for procreation. 

Broken Nose Theatre is staging the midwest premiere of After the Blast in one of the small black box spaces at the Den Theatre. Direction is by JD Caudill. Kazan’s dialog is fresh and crisp and includes many references to the science going on to make “re-habitation” possible but the storyline skirts around what the world is really like “upstairs” until the very end.  

Oliver (Ruben Carrazana) is one of the “re-habitation” scientists and Anna (Kim Boler), a former journalist and a creative type, has taken time off work to prepare for the next fertility test, which includes an MHE, which Anna has failed before.  Her mental health isn’t great because she suffers from depression, so Oliver thinks having a Robot Helper might improve her situation. Anna’s role would be to train the robot for a real home placement. 

Kazan skillfully gets all this background spelled out in  the first scene, where Oliver chats with another Helper adopter in an antiseptic waiting room. “It’s a vicious circle,” Oliver says. “She doesn’t pass the Mental Health Exam because she’s depressed and so we don’t get our fertility, which makes her more depressed. I mean, give her a kid. She’ll be happy.”

Kim Boler with Arthur (foreground). David W. Lipschutz, Taylor B. Hill and Ruben Carrazana.
Photo by Evan Hanover.

Anna objects to the robot plan at first but when it arrives, she gradually grows interested in teaching the robot—she names him Arthur—develop movement, language and conversational skills. (Arthur is a clever, toddler-sized robot designed by Jabberwocky Marionettes and operated and voiced by Arielle Leverett, who manages to give Arthur a slightly flat mechanistic speaking style without making him seem too, well, robotic.) 

Arthur learns quickly and Anna is delighted with the process. And we all become charmed by him. Arthur stores information, apparently learns to think and even ask probing questions. 

Carrie and Patrick (Teresa Kuruvilla and David W. Lipschutz), friends of Anna and Oliver, are expecting a baby soon. Having Arthur around makes Anna more comfortable with her situation and she begins to be hopeful about passing the test and getting fertility. (Carrie was played by understudy Taylor B. Hill at the performance I saw.) 

Even though Anna is not happy enough to be permitted to have a baby in this rigidly controlled society (1984ish but without doublethink and unpersons), she refuses to use the “sim” technology that Oliver and many others use. Sim or simulation allows people to feel they are having pleasant experiences, perceiving beauty or eating tasty food. It’s sort of like therapy by VR. 

After the Blast is performed on a bare bones set; a few pieces of essential furniture are moved around to structure necessary spaces. This minimalist set design (by Therese Ritchie) is enhanced by the lighted colored cubes in Cat Davis’ lighting design. But the overall lighting was handled unevenly. The stage was often a bit too dark and then quickly brightened without a smooth transition. Sound design is by Rae Segbawu.

Arielle Leverett with Arthur and Ruben Carrazana. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The lead actors, Boler and Carrazana, inhabit their roles fully. You definitely feel there’s chemistry between Anna and Oliver and their performances bring you to sympathize with their situations, both personal and environmental. That makes the final scene in After the Blast truly devastating. 

I first saw After the Blast in its world premiere in 2017 at Lincoln Center Theaters; it was an excellent production, staged in the small Claire Tow Theater on the second floor. Obviously,  Lincoln Center Theater has more funding for props and set design (Anna and Oliver live in a fully furnished, IKEA-like home). The biggest difference between the productions was Arthur himself, who at LCT was a speaking, self-propelled, canister-vacuum-sized companion. Arthur could only operate remotely with clever stagehands and plenty of programming but it made this R2D2-like character that much more adorable. 

After the Blast by Broken Nose Theatre continues at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through June 11. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Tickets for all performances are “pay-what-you-can,” allowing you to set your own price. Reserve tickets here. Running time is two hours including an intermission. 

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.