Fred Nebula is the latest production from Next Folding Theatre Company, and it’s really something different. The play is set in the vastness of outer space, and yet the characters are purely New Brunswick. It’s New Brunswickers…in space! With aliens, robots, and space cougars.
Presented inside St. Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre, Fred Nebula is a collaborative effort by eight writers, seven of whom also perform on stage. The episodic play, directed by Ryan Griffith, stages life on board a spaceship where the crew are beginning to miss home. Turns out that the novelty of space travel gets old after enough time away from friends and family. And so, the crew try to get along with each other because, well, who else are they going to spend time with?
The play’s opening scene sums up Fred Nebula very well. In it, members of the crew are seated around the table listening to Steve (Madeline Whalen / Rebekah Chassé) share a ghost story. Even in the far future people are not only still afraid of ghosts, but they also still like to tell stories.
Where Fred Nebula succeeds is the humanity at the core of its science fiction setting. Characters like Gabby (Kira Smith / Tilly Jackson) are grounded by common troubles. She is secretly in love with Eric (Corenski Nowlan) and wishes she had the courage to tell him. (Also, Eric is a robot). And then there’s the whole issue of eating the same meal day after day. Gabby doesn’t care if the crew’s meals follow Canada’s Food Guide, no one should have to eat the same meal over two hundred times.
Science fiction is no stranger to social commentary, look at Star Trek or episodes from The Outer Limits. Here, the prejudice is against citizens from Aia’s conflict-ridden home planet. When some of the crew members learn that Aia is from that planet, they suddenly start to see her differently and wonder if she’s just like “them” or an exception. What gives the scene impact is when Steve and Aia, away from the other crew, start to talk about their families. There’s a realization by Steve that they share a lot in common, leading the character to stand up for Aia when she’s not around.
Again, the strength of Fred Nebula is its focus on the human even in extraordinary circumstances. The main theme here is some things never change. Like peoples’ desire to belong or to feel respected, as one crew member shares during a team building exercise. The emphasis on community and ideas about belonging makes us think about where and who we are now, and the direction we are headed in. There’s a lot being said not only about communities in New Brunswick, but also life on our Pale Blue Dot.
That doesn’t mean that Fred Nebula isn’t also delightfully weird. At one point, a character talks about adding a third samosa stand at the Farmer’s Market; the next there’s a dangerous space anomaly that threatens the crew. There’s even a fresh and hilarious take on the enduring New Brunswick cougar myth – a great scene by Whalen and Melissa McMichael who plays the Captain. So, there’s a refreshing mix of serious commentary and oddball humour.
Alien interference causes the human crew members to have new bodies when the play resumes in the second act, hence the dual credits for certain characters. The crew members, now being played by a different set of actors, are totally not okay with the changes. It’s a fun and clever way of fitting all 19 actors on stage.
Unfortunately, Fred Nebula‘s second act feels less cohesive and engaging than its first. The love triangle that emerges is an interesting development, but potential sabotage by one of the crew members? Oddly placed near the end of the play, so it feels inconsequential. Which really sticks out in a play that runs long at 2h 15min (excluding a 15-minute intermission). It’s too bad since the character dynamics from the first act are worthy of revisiting.
The production embraces the vibe of a low-budget space opera, almost ideal for the type of stories staged here. Holmes-Lauder’s atmospheric light and sound design produces a feeling of travelling the stars. The cast’s acapella performances during scene transitions give the feeling of an intense serialized sci-fi drama (think Captain Kirk vs. Gorn). The spaceship, prop and set design by Samuel Crowell, feels as though this vessel has seen better, more vibrant days – like a certain province. Costume Designer Katherine Hall (who plays Sam, along with Telina Debly) delivers a great cheesy robot costume for Nowlan. It’s simple black clothing with thin material glued on to give the appearance of a metal body. The crew’s outfits are kept simple, as well, with plain casual clothing, which helps accentuate the more sci-fi elements of the production.
Fred Nebula is a space adventure that manages to be both fun and relevant to our current stardate.
Next Folding Theatre Company’s Fred Nebula runs March 2 – 4 at the Black Box Theatre.
Cast & Writing Team
Neomi Iancu Haliva…Writer/Advisor Lexus
Jenn Flewelling…Ambassador Kardoso
Heather Stuckless…Overseer Jutuun
Melissa McMichael…Credits Music Composition/Captain
Michael Holmes-Lauder…The Second One