Science fiction has an innate ability to address current philosophical, scientific, and political ideas. So it’s no wonder that Edward Einhorn, director at the “theater of idea”s that is Untitled Theater Company No. 61(UTC61), would find a way to create theatrical productions that blend sci-fi and absurdism to the world we find ourselves facing today.
Einhorn has been running UTC61 for over 25 years, often doing pieces that have science-fictional elements, such as productions of Cat’s Cradle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Lathe of Heaven.
“Vonnegut is still my favorite author,” he explains. “I’m also really influenced by the old TV show, The Prisoner. It’s surreal, science-fiction-y, but also in this alternate world of strangeness. As a playwright, I’m influenced by Vaclav Havel, Ionesco, and others like them. Terry Gilliam is a big influence too.
“Some of the classic absurdist theater is innately sci-fi, like Waiting for Godot. It feels a little sci-fi when you think about that world,” he notes. “Or Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. It is innately absurdist but has elements of sci-fi. I wanted to do that consciously—to create that connection.”
Einhorn’s latest production, Alma Baya, is a strong and heady blend of sci-fi and absurdist theater at its best—well worth checking out in its current run.
The play begins with two people living in a stark pod, attempting to live by an instruction manual they believe to be good and useful to making decisions. The rules make it clear—only two individuals are to occupy the pod. When a stranger arrives seeking help and shelter, it seems logical to invite them in. But with three, the dynamic changes—and relationships begin to disintegrate under the pressure of the new situation.
Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, in the wake of growing political polarization, Alma Baya is an examination of what brings people to their belief systems and their views of the world. “I wanted something would distill the situation pre-pandemic into a small piece,” explains Einhorn. “I came up with this idea about diminishing resources and what that creates. The setup is two people in a pod that can sustain just two people, and a third person who is a refugee.”
The dynamic of three people in a situation where there seems to be only enough resources for two is an inherently tense one. Who will survive? Who gets to decide? How do relationships change under pressure? Is there a moral imperative that governs the situation? And what if the three people involved don’t all follow the same moral code?
Alma Baya examines this dynamic intensely, with captivating performances performed against a stark set, featuring just the pod the characters live in—a hexagonal space that includes only machines, which double as furniture. The environment is mechanical, functional, but not created to provide human comfort.
And when the refugee arrives, spinning a tragic tale of destruction and loss, seeking a safe place to call home, the fractures in everyone’s beliefs and needs come to the forefront.
“There are people who see things as zero sum, and those who don’t see it as zero sum,” says Einhorn. “In writing Alma Baya, I became interested, as I often do, in examining religion and how it forms. There are a lot of touches of religion in this pod, even though there officially is no religion.”
The story is a reflection on the two most common ways of thinking about our fellow humans. Either we are committed to helping one another, taking risks to do so. Or, we are committed to protecting resources and our own survival, which means that others may not survive. The tension between these two ways of thinking is a strong one, not easily resolved. And it can tend to drive people apart rather than together.
The production of Alma Baya is all the more intriguing in the wake of our current global pandemic, which has drawn forth the fractures in our relationships in unexpected ways. Putting on a production in a post-COVID world is complex. And this tension is reflected even at the level of figuring out how to put on the play to begin with. After all, there are COVID-19 protocols to respect, and that means quite a bit of planning that wouldn’t be needed in a normal year.
“We have systems in place, but things can still go awry,” says Einhorn. “It’s an expensive production. It’s a gamble; it’s a risk. We’re doing what we can to mitigate the risk.”
Einhorn decided having two casts would be wise—people can substitute for one another if someone were to become ill. That decision led to an interesting opportunity for the director. “In casting, I realized we had one cast of three that matched, and another cast of three that matched, and I became interested in playing with those differences,” he notes. “It creates a totally different interpretation. One is more comic, and one is darker.”
In addition to alternative casts, everyone in the cast, crew and audience will be vaccinated, and there will be a mix of live and on-demand performances so people can participate at their level of comfort, whether in-person or from home.
“I’ve never live-streamed before, but I’m excited about the opportunity,” says Einhorn. “We’re having fewer audience members than usual, a very small audience in person, but a much bigger one potentially with the on-demand and live-streaming options.”
Live performances of Alma Baya will run at A.R.T./New York through August 28, and the show will also be available on-demand through September 19th. Tickets ($25-$30) are available for advance purchase at www.untitledtheater.com. All audience members must be vaccinated and bring their vax card or excelsior pass. The performance will run approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.