The alarm bell rings loud and intense, signaling an intense action to begin, and a stance to be taken to stabilize for survival. It also is a rally cry, bringing the Untitled Theater Company No. 61‘s compelling new sci-fi drama, Alma Baya, to stand ready. Being prepared and knowing, even when it all might be a test, is the key to the structure’s stability, and for those souls that inhabit the space. I wondered it if was a meta symbol for the brain in survivalist conflict, but as written and directed with style by Edward Einhorn (HERE’s The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein), the fascinating new play finds its hold on our emotional sensibilities, streaming out loud and clear to the universe down here, from over there at the A.R.T./New York’s Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre (502 West 53rd Street at 10th Avenue) courtesy of Iben Cenholt of Livestream Design, from August 13-28. Complex meta constructions aside, somewhere inside this sterile captivating enclosure, Einhorn cyphanes out a number of futuristic conceptualizations like a intricate puzzle on a flat white surface, finding a way to investigate a conflict that is waiting in the wings to throw this order into chaos. We don’t see it coming, but when its shadow looms over the peace, we know that a battle is beginning
The two at the center of this positioning are a ying/yang type of couple, unprepared for what is about to arrive, and unclear what it all means. The idea of control and understand slips away fast, leaving a complex equation that is not mapped out in any of the handbooks. The dilemma at Alma Baya‘s core becomes the defining feature of this absurdist humanistic battle, playing with our own sense of humanity and guilt. Will the two exhibit a level of compassion that we all think we own, or will more survivalistic attitudes prevail in that bright white room that could also be our brain? Is there a right way and a wrong way to be? We think we know, but is the question too weighted to be answered honestly?
Alma and Baya are quite the pair. They could be opposing internal forces within our inner consciousness, or they could truly be what they say, a working pair, programed differently to act out a regime that will keep them alive and well. They wake, eat, follow the rules, turn cranks when instructed, and pleasure themselves when the time allows (how? I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued). They live out their days together, side by side, although not even in power or dynamic, on a seemingly hostile planet inside a neutral white pod. It has been designed to sustain them, through volumes of rules and instructions, until some sort of conclusion or outcome presents itself. It’s a compelling premise, bathed in symbols and metaphors, and underneath that intricate set designed with a clarity of vison by Mike Mroch (The Brick’s Unsex Me Here: The Tragedy of Macbeth), enhanced with lighting by Federico Restrepo (Don Quixote Takes New York at La MaMa), perfectly formatted costumes by Ramona Ponce (Red Bull Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep) , strong Fight Choreography by Dan Zisson, and a precise sound design by Mark Bruckner (The God Projekt at La MaMa), a number of questions floats magically in the air. Where exactly are we and how did we get here? Is this a working brain in conflict, a post-apocalyptic earth scenario, or somewhere/something else entirely? And what had to happen to bring them and us to this white bright place and time?
Regardless of the answers you might deduce, Alma Baya sneaks itself inside our head and plays with us. It is a little bit “Waiting for Godot” in a manner of speaking, especially at the beginning, that is until a space suit-wearing refugee arrives at the door, banging on the walls, and desperately wanting to be let in. Will they allow it, ultimately saving her from certain death? Or will they leave it outside to die, so they can obtain that working space suit, as theirs stopped working a while ago. “The dead are fertilizing the others,” we are told, and if that idea doesn’t send a shiver down our collective souls, you aren’t paying attention to the world that surrounds us.
Is she a Alma, a Baya, or something completely different. This is their question, as they try to make sense of their newly unpacked situation. This other, played here by Nina Mann (Metropolitan Playhouse’s It Pays to Advertise), says she is a Baya, but is that part of the seduction? The more suspicious Alma, stoically portrayed in this production (there are two separate casts) by Maggie Cino (The Brick’s The Hollow) thinks it is. She can’t be trusted, she explains, as any other Alma would certainly know what an Alma would say to stay alive out here in this wasteland. The Stranger states that she is from another similar pod that has broken down, and that her partner has died in her sleep because of a lack of oxygen. What are they to believe? These two who only know one another and the roles that have been laid out for them to play. Together, although quite the opposites in thought and emotion, the original Alma (Cino) and Baya, delicately portrayed by JaneAnne Halter (The Players Theatre’s Somewhere I Can Scream), find themselves placed in conflict. Alma sits firmly on the side of ‘survival of the fittest’ at all costs to morality and humanity, while the other, Baya, is filled, rightly or wrongly, with an empathetic caregiver’s compassion coupled with a strong desire to save. Where would you fall?
The show is a strongly crafted dilemma, with stances easily taken, but never held firmly for very long. It plays with our brain, asking us to weight things against one another that would ultimately be quite difficult to judge, if we are being honest with one another. To stay alive is such a strong pull, balanced with compassion and care, but where do we hang trust in that equation. It’s enough to make our internal alarm bells ring as loudly as they do here, but will turning that crank really solve the equation, or just delay the processing? So many questions, and what a pleasuring it is to try to unwrap the answer.
The play has two separate trios of actors as a Covid precaution, featuring Cino, Mann, and Halter (the cast I saw) as Cast B, with Ann Marie Yoo (HERE’s Doctors Jane and Alexander) as Alma, Sheleah Harris (4th Wall Theatre’s for colored girls who have considered suicide) as Baya, and Rivera Reese (The Kraine’s Matt & Ben) as The Stranger in Cast A.
Performances will be Friday, August 13 at 7:30pm, Saturday, August 14 at 6pm, Saturday, August 14 at 9pm, Sunday, August 15 at 2pm, Sunday, August 15 at 7:30pm, Tuesday, August 17 at 7:30pm, Wednesday, August 18 at 7:30pm, Thursday, August 19 at 7:30pm, Friday, August 20 at 7:30pm, Saturday, August 21 at 6pm, Saturday, August 21 at 9pm, Sunday, August 22 at 2pm, Tuesday, August 24 at 7:30pm, Wednesday, August 25 at 7:30pm, Thursday, August 26 at 7:30pm, Friday, August 27 at 7:30pm, Saturday, August 28 at 6pm, and Saturday, August 28 at 9pm.
The show will also be livestreamed on Saturday, August 14 at 6pm, Saturday, August 14 at 9pm, Sunday, August 15 at 2pm, and Sunday, August 15 at 7:30pm and will be available on-demand through September 19. 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.
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