No space for sci-fi on New York stage

December 5, 2012

For a city that’s supposed to have everything, New York can sometimes fall the teeniest bit short. The theater scene is one of the world’s best, but when it comes to science fiction, New York fails to deliver.

Broadway has “Spider-Man: Turn Off th

e Dark” playing at the Foxwood Theater, but even if comic book adaptations count as sci-fi, the Spider-Man musical is hardly a triumph of the genre; the show is mostly famous for its many injured actors and its astronomical production costs.

The Lucille Lortel Theater recently presented “Carrie,” a musical adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. The show was an improvement on its previous production, but that was a low bar to reach — when “Carrie” opened on Broadway in 1988, audience members booed the opening number; it ran five performances.

Straight theater companies have also steered away from sci-fi. The Flux Theater Ensemble attempted science fiction with its “Deinde” last spring but delivered instead a long and preachy disaster of a production.

New York’s ambitious actors, directors, and playwrights seem to avoid even trying the genre. Maybe they know something the rest of us have not yet realized — that sci-fi just isn’t meant for theater.

Great science fiction has always moved beyond its science roots into human stories of politics and the heart. Jules Verne’s stories are now so antiquated that it is easy to forget they were once futuristic. But the novels still make for thrilling adventures.

“Battlestar Galactica” featured humans in spaceships waging war on robots, but viewers knew the show was essentially about human rights and terrorism. These themes were so relevant that the United Nations even invited the actors to sit on a panel.

“Battlestar Galactica” could afford the extra baggage of costumes, special effects and intricate backstory, but theater is an inherently minimalist art form. Actors fly onstage in “Spider-Man,” but the effect isn’t as convincing as it would be on the screen.

Theater companies, especially ones with small budgets, rely on their audience’s imaginations to produce even the simplest of settings and special effects. Whizzing planets and aliens tax the imagination, so playwrights know not to include them unless they’re absolutely essential to the show’s story. But the great thing about sci-fi is that the sci-fi itself is never the essential part.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 6 print edition. Leora Rosenberg is a staff writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

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