THEATER REVIEW | Gadfly Theatre Productions’ Final Frontier Festival explores LGBT topics through sci-fi lens

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Gadfly Theatre Productions is a local theater company whose mission is to “build a playground for the obscure, the oppressed and  unapologetically original.” Since 2010, they have been producing plays from a queer/feminist perspective in order to fulfill this goal. They’ve staged classic plays, original work, and from June 13rd to June 21st, they are staging their first themed festival, Final Frontier Festival, which presents six one-act plays across two evenings at Nimbus Theatre in Minneapolis. 

The tone and topics of the plays are quite varied and diverse. Who Killed Captian Kirk? by Paco Madden concerns the events at Star Trek convention that precedes and follows the murder of a well-known celebrity. The Wolves Above by Alyssa Zaczek offers a post-apocalyptic scenario between a fembot named Venus and her creators. Love Bot by Matthew A. Everett is somewhat similar; in this show one gay and one lesbian astronaut are faced with the uncomfortable task of becoming a second Adam and Eve. Honest to God by J.C. Pankratz is a one-woman show that presents the events that occur when a Biblical sign appears in a small town. Falling Awake by Alexis Scheer is a dream-bound piece about loss and memory. Gargle McFury Slays Gender Essentialism, by Alex Reed, follows a cosplayer who undertakes a transdimensional crusade against gender norms. The shows are broken down into two sets that show on successive evenings.

Science fiction, a genre which places possibilities as one of its defining traits, has had limited dialogue with LGBT issues. Fandom itself has a long history of placing or re-contextualzing science-fiction characters and stories within a GLBT perspective. Combined with a likewise limited range of science fiction written for theater, this makes for a great opportunity for a festival like this one. Especially now, as the mainstream dialogue has moved toward a basic discussion of GLBT realities, there is an opportunity for science fiction work to take the discussion into forward or outward-looking stories.

As with any festival, this collection approaches this goal with various intensities and moods. All of them are presented in a minimalist way, with little more than costume or furniture to assist the audience’s imagination. Fans used to the high production values of science fiction films may be put off by this, but the lack of props or sets doesn’t hinder the material. The lighting design and sound work takes the place of physical dressing, and these aspects are on-par with larger theater productions. Failling Awake has one of its characters smoking a lit prop cigarette, which seems an unusually realistic choice for a show that otherwise takes on a theatrical aesthetic. Especially considering the small space and potential discomfort it could cause. 

All of the plays has something to offer and worth considering, but there was a “Fringe Festival” vibe to all of them that suggested more workshop than formal presentation. Some lines were forgotten or missed, and there were a couple of raw moments where actors fell out of character. These small errors remained small, and actually added to the experimental feeling of the evening. The directors, across the board, guided the material into a form that served each story. I don’t think there was anything on the stage, for better or worse, that wasn’t inherent to the material. The actors themselves, many of which appeared in several of the shows, did a good job differentiating one role from the next and never felt generic. Honest to God star Lori Castille crafts a series of distinct male and female characters in her one-woman show.

The Wolves Above, a sharp and sly approach to genre tropes as well as gender politics, entangles its concerns with a tight drama about what is to be done with the “self-aware” fembot in a world without women. The elements at play are well developed and the short arc of the narrative moves forward in a way that engages but doesn’t escape attention. At times the text swings too close to previous classics, such as Frankenstein, but comments strongly enough on these matters to feel fresh. I think this play would gain the most by being staged in a more elaborate setting.

Honest to God is a drama that moves through some very well-written material by way of turns driven by humor or pain. What is most compelling about this play is the many hints moving about in the murky subtext. Alienation, escape, and ostracization are all themes that are relevant to the mission of this festival, and Honest to God embodies all of them as the town falls under the spell of an unwelcome religious sign. I don’t think this show needs to be more than it is, it felt like a mature and finished piece worthy of more attention. I have to give credit to the organizers for including this in the festival, because at first blush Honest to God would seem outside the scope of science fiction.

Falling Awake follows from a similarly literary understanding of what science fiction is. In this show, the various characters move out of dream and drug states as they cope with the loss of a soldier who was very near to them all. This is a poetic play, at times too abstract, but always moving with expressionistic fluidity that never felt forced. Audiences may leave this play in a state of puzzlement, but I think this is just as well considering the displacement of all the characters.

Love Bot is a spritely comedy with a fair bit of raunch. The essential part of the show requires significant disbelief, as the entire set-up contradicts itself, but once  you get past that it is fun and presents some interesting questions. There is dialogue that are a little heavy with exposition, but the comedy and performers make up for that with playfulness.

Gargle McFury Slays Gender Essentialism is also a comedy-driven romp. This one is a little more geek-centric than the others because it addresses topics of gender and genre that have been discussed and debated at conventions across the country. Gargle McFury, a cartoonish deity that drives the story, is a broad rendering of common fantasy heroes, and the approach to the embodiments and combat with gender types is also broad and funny. This play also has a good amount of stage combat to liven things up. Many might see the entire ground of the play as superficial compared to the weighty themes elsewhere in the festival, but as the main character suggests, change has to start somewhere.

Who Killed Captain Kirk? aims at comedy. The cast of unique people, only some of which are Trek fans, spend a lot of time playing with fan in-jokes and Star Trek lore. Along the way, they make way for commentary on the various racial and gender issues which the Star Trek universe has flirted with. The conclusion of the play is something like a dinner theater murder mystery, and the audience decides the winner by the time-honored forensic practice of hand-raising. Unfortunately, the writing takes the agitprop route of addressing social issues using exposition rather than drama or character. I suppose this is forgivable, as the original series wasn’t guided by subtlety, but it felt raw and unfinished compared to the more elegant work in the festival. Likewise, there are a fair amount of stock jokes that may appeal to fans, but also weakened what could have been an entertaining satire of sexual paradigms.

The idea behind this festival is a promising one, and something that I hope continues into the future. They have a similarly themed horror festival on schedule for next year, but I hope someone picks up this torch and runs with it. Perhaps they can return to science fiction in the season after. Given the budgets usually required to stage science-fiction for the screen, this might be the best opportunity to get some real exciting, very challenging, work out in front of the public.

Tickets for the festival can be purchased via Brown Paper Tickets.