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Review & Interview: Ascension brings the Zoom aesthetic to live theatre

Director Ahmed Best discusses transferring D.G. Watson’s science fiction play from cyberspace to the stage.

Ascension, an intriguing science-fiction play making its debut at the Atwater Village Theatre, is difficult to describe in depth without getting into major spoilers, so instead of a synopsis, a more useful description might be to say that the play is the rough analogue of a Christopher Nolan mind-bender transplanted to the stage, with all of the ideas but none of the cinematic bombast. Much of the storyline’s fascination lies in synthesizing bits of information as they are gradually revealed, assembling pieces until they begin to form the outline of puzzle, but often each answer leads to new questions.

The setup is simple enough to explain: A young woman (Charrell Mack) with little memory except that her name might be Rebel awakens trapped in some kind of pod and gradually realizes she can hear voices – the voices of the audience watching her plight. She asks for help – information about what’s going on in the world, requests to make phone calls and leave messages, which will play a part later in the story.

When another story thread enters, about a scientist (Karen Sours Albisua) developing a suspended animation pod, we assume that Rebel must be inside one of these, but that hardly clarifies the situation. Why does Rebel have no memory? Why is she trapped? How does the futuristic technology jibe with references to current events? What does her situation have to do with The Second Sun, a sort of New Age cult anticipating a future paradise for humanity. And most of all, who are we in the audience supposed to be, and why can we communicate with the characters?

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Ascension cleverly plays with the Covid-19 zeitgeist – the result of people being physically isolated while still remaining technologically connected. D.G. Watson’s script was conceived as a virtual play that could be performed via Zoom meeting, and  elements of the story obviously lend itself to that format, such as a reference to the audience members not all being in the same physical space as the action – something that would have been literally true if the play were being viewed over the Internet. Though characters are sometimes in the same room, much of their interaction is portrayed via telecommunications presented on large screens, which also display a undulating geometric pattern representing an advanced AI program.

Despite the remnants of the birthing process, the play still works when seen through a proscenium arch instead of on a computer monitor. Director Ahmed Best (whose extensive film and television credits include doing the voice and motion capture for Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy) explains the considerations that went into transferring the play from cyberspace to the stage, when the relaxation of health and safety protocols made it apparent that Ascension could be performed live.

Director Ahmed Best interviewed about Ascension
Director Ahmed Best (photo by-Mike Quain)

“Most of our concerns were about having the genre be understood in a theatre,” he recalls. “Everyone is very used to seeing this type of story on a screen. What we’re trying to do is challenge the conventions of theatre, and that’s what the Zoom world did during the pandemic. We all had to adjust to doing work on these screens. It proved very difficult, but it also gave us an opportunity to recognize that these screens could be a reality, and we can be creative on these screens. It just made me think that there’s a world where the screen and the live action could work well together, so we decided to push the envelope and really see what happens when we mix those two elements. We took a lot of what we learned about how to do theatre in the Zoom world and put it in this. We did a lot of things that would be recognized because of what we went through in the pandemic, like the phone calls [between people who cannot be physically together], and a lot of the technical stuff that goes on – it’s a lot more forgiving because we’re dealing with so much technical stuff in our lives now because of the Coronavirus pandemic. But the real challenge was getting the audience on board for this kind of genre in a live theatre setting. We knew not everybody was going to come along, but so far it’s been really exciting, and it’s working.”

Ascension Playwright D.G. Watson
Playwright D.G. Watson
(photo courtesy Echo Theater Company)

Another major element of Watson’s script is its self-referential nature, inviting the audience to participate in the action while also noting that their connection to the characters is largely an illusion; at one point a character chides the audience for being voyeurs who care about the character’s plight only so long as it keeps them entertained. There are also references to the character’s predicament being cyclic in nature, as if the action is repeating – which is literally true in the sense that the play will repeat performances day after day throughout its run.

The interactive element of Ascension is far removed from something like Delusion Interative Theatre: audience members react verbally; they are not required to physically engage with the performers – an important point in a play which questions the depth of audience’s engagement with the characters. Regardless of how genuine their involvement is, acknowledging the viewers’ presence and asking them to participate opens a Pandora’s box of potential problems: what happens when some smart-ass heckler attempts to steal the show?

“That’s always going to be an element of the show,” says Ahmed Best. “Thankfully, I’ve done a lot of this stuff – I’ve actually been on stage where the hecklers are actually coming at you. So I know a lot of little ways to get around it, and I have such amazing actors that they’re down for the challenge. Especially as more people know that it’s an interactive show and they can talk, you’re gonna get more people trying to break that wall and get the actors to [break character], but I doubt that’s gonna happen. They’re prepared for everything.”

Mixing psychology and science fiction, Ascension is sophisticated, complex, and challenging – but in a way that audiences will find engaging rather than confusing. Its science fiction trappings provide a lens through which to view our currently reality, in which communication via technology is unable to overcome the sense of social isolation and alienation lingering in the wake of forced social distancing during a pandemic. It portrays a world, not too far from our own, in which desperation leads to hope based on dubious beliefs, leading to potential disaster, both individually and collectively. Eventually, the plot’s byzantine convolutions do knit together into an explicable pattern, providing not just a solution but, more importantly, a satisfying dramatic catharsis. And yet the puzzle remains. What happened becomes clear, but what to make of this tragedy remains for the audience to decide.

Ascension Rating

Bottom Line

Ascension ReviewAscension is sophisticated and smart. Audiences up for the challenge of navigating is labyrinthine plot will emerge shaken but glad they took the journey.

Credits: Written by D.G. Watson. Directed by Ahmed Best. Produced by Kelly Beech, Chris Fields, and Tessa Slovis. Production stage manager: Trevor Lee.

Cast: Karen Sours Albisua, Leandro Cano, Samantha Cavestani, Elise DuRant, Steve Hofvendahl, Gloria Ines, Charrell Mack.

Ascension is presented by The Echo Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre through November 18, with performances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 8pm. The address is 3269 Casitas Avenue in Atwater Village (Los Angeles) 90039. Get more information here: echotheatercompany.com/ascension.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.