Entertainment » Theatre

Citizens of the Empire

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jan 12, 2016
Alissa Cordeiro, Kathleen C. Lewis, James Haywrd, and Kristen Heider in 'Citizens ofthe Empire,' a space opera running through Jan. 23 at the BCA
Alissa Cordeiro, Kathleen C. Lewis, James Haywrd, and Kristen Heider in 'Citizens ofthe Empire,' a space opera running through Jan. 23 at the BCA  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

Boston Public Works -- the theater company, not the, you know, city department in charge of picking up trash and fixing pot holes -- both write and produce their own plays. It's an ambitious docket, but with Citizens of the Empire they prove once again that they are up to the challenge.

The play, by Kevin Mullins, is billed as "a space opera." That's an apt description: The story is set in the future, among the upper echelons of a galaxy-spanning civilization in which the one percenters rule with callous disregard over everyone else, humans and sentient machines alike. (If aliens exist in this universe, they aren't depicted here.) As economic pressures grow and noble houses jockey for influence, the common people are harder and harder pressed; making things worse, there's a new plague that hops from world to world along with commercial and diplomatic passengers, bringing devastation to the planets it touches.

One young aristocrat whose life has been upended by the plague is Marcus Kent (James Hayward), a principled young man whose family came into great wealth thanks to business perspicacity and some good luck. Having grown up among the Empire's ruling class, Marcus is close friends with a number of power players -- among them Princess Eve (Melissa DeJesus), whose father, the Emperor, is in decline; Edward (David N. Rogers), who plays a pivotal role in a guild of commercial space travelers; and siblings Naomi (Katharine Daly), now a military officer, and Griffin (Johnny Quinones), her brother, who is a disaffected nobleman. The latter two are the children of the immensely powerful and pitiless Lady Petrov (Juliet Bowler), and Griffin also happens to be Marcus' lover.

It's Complicated: Johnny Quinones and Michael John Ciszewski  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

Former lover, that is, since Marcus has defected to the ranks of a group of rebels looking to ease the aristocrats' stranglehold on the working beings of the galaxy. For this traitorous act, Marcus has been arrested and shipped off to a penal colony. But the prisoner ship is intercepted in mid-flight by a trash hauler called Sid (Kathleen C. Lewis) and, with the help of Rex (Kristen Heider), an android planted among the ship's prisoners, Marcus is liberated while the ship's crew and guards remain in suspended animation.

Also sprung from interstellar deep freeze: Josephine (Alissa Cordeiro), a scrappy survivor who ran a brothel until she ran afoul of the law. Among her workers were both human and "synthetic" sex workers -- called "doves" in the parlance of the eight centuries hence -- and Josephine herself is a dynamic, sensual presence, sometimes calculating in her flirtations but often unconsciously physical in the way she interacts with her new friends.

Everyone has their own agenda, including Rex who, far from being immune to human emotion and dedicated only to the thought processes enabled by her silicon processors, is a passionate and resolute freedom fighter. For Rex -- and all synthetics -- life and freedom are just as precious as they are for organic humans. The androids also share human priorities when it comes to preferring death in the struggle for freedom over life in servitude.

But the rebels are not all in agreement about tactics and priorities. Neither are the aristocrats who shudder at the thought of a popular uprising; Lady Petrov pushes Eve to take a hard line stance and crush the resistance, while Edward stands by to see who will prevail. Griffin, meantime, had no political preferences: He's nursing his broken heart, with help from new fiancé Rafi (Michael John Ciszewski) -- a dove, scandalously enough. But as rebels and old guard blue bloods are inexorably drawn toward a massive interstellar conflict, where will individual loyalties and passions pull the characters, and who will they betray to get what they want?

Hitting the High Notes of Space Opera  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

"Opera" is right. Sci-fi settings or not, "Citizens of the Empire" has a sense of sweep, even grandeur, about it. The plot's many personal and political entanglements swirl and unfold over a leisurely runtime of two and a half hours, every minute of which serves the story. Jake Scaltreto creates some shoestring, but effective, futuristic props; the costuming, by Erica Desautels, is as outré as you would expect, with many outfits looking like something from a Flash Gordon serial -- there's more than a hint of homage going on, especially when it comes to Princess Eve's wearables -- but at the same time the costumes fit the characters, with the rebels clad in utilitarian garb and the nobles strutting around in fancier duds.

The sound design, by Brad Smith, takes s similar approach: Audiences know what sci-fi dramas sound like, and the sound effects here serve as a world-building shortcut. The music is much more contemporary, though -- in a sense -- timeless; there's also a clever use of music to differentiate between flashbacks and the present, as Griffin, on his first encounter with Rafi, thinks back to his first dance with Marcus. The music switches from one courtly composition to another and back again as Griffin literally swings between past and present, doing a "quadrille" with Rafi and a futuristically formal swing dance routine with Marcus in the past.

Suspended Animation - and Prison Break  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

As though taking a cue from "Star Trek" cinematographer Jerry Finnerman -- who painted the original Starship Enterprise with richly hued light -- Ian King, the lighting designer, saturates the set and actors in royal purples and eye-popping magentas. It's a literally otherworldly effect that helps to set the tone and create the play's atmospheric sense of far-future strangeness.

The real accomplishment, though, lies with the casting. Every actor seems perfect for his or her part, and not one of them goes for camp. Rather, the cast, while having fun with the material, take it seriously; even when the play veers into familiar, "Star Wars"-ish territory (a raiding party infiltrating a massive warship races to get to the bridge to defuse the self-destruct system) the cast succeeding in making the situation dramatic instead of silly.

Kristen Heider finds a perfect balance between emotion and relentless, mechanical programming as Rex; even her bearing has a faint tinge of the robotic about it, but not so much as to seem forced or awkward. Juliet Bowler is absolutely delicious as the sinister Lady Petrov; she could be in space or in the regal courts of centuries past. It doesn't matter. She has the part nailed. Michael John Ciszewski is dignified in is portrayal of Rafi the "dove," and is costume reflects both masculine and feminine elements: Clearly, in the future, they are a lot less hung up about binary gender stuff than we are.

Michael John Ciszewski as Rafi  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

James Hayward makes for a heroic Marcus Kent; you can see the poverty-stricken roots and working man's lineage beneath his familiarity with society's wealthy upper strata. If anyone is called upon to get eventless to campy, it's Melissa DeJesus, whose Princess Eve gets to emote even more wildly than the others, pout, fret, and finally blossom; Johnny Quinones, meantime, does more with his character than stick to the two speeds Griffin is written in, basically surly adolescent or youth liberated by love. Quinones paints with both those colors, but also finds ways to bend and shade them. As for Katharine Daly, she makes a convincing brown-shirt -- but also an affecting sister and daughter who's caught in the crosscurrents of a powerful family.

Space opera is usually goofy, unscientific, zippy, and fun; "Citizens of the Empire" achieves all of that, but under director Lindsay Eagle it finds plenty of occasions along the way to throw in other things: Deft political satire, adroit social commentary, and some lovely character flourishes. It's nice, too, to see a frankly sexual, emotionally complicated relationship between male lovers -- two relationships, really, that overlap in clearly painful ways -- that doesn't mock or minimize the participants.

That's important to this play, because underneath the space battles and retro-futuristic gear it's essentially a love story about a group of childhood friends who go up to discover that the world... or rather, the galaxy... isn't content to let them hold on to their innocence and their uncomplicated affection for one another. That's the poignant, and tragic, theme that lifts the play out of its genre ghetto and lets it fly.

"Citizens of the Empire" continues through Jan. 23 at the Boston Center for the Arts. for tickets and more information, please visit http://www.bostonpublicworks.org/citizens-of-the-empire1.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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