Carolina Actors Studio Theatre has taken more than its share of chances over recent years. They installed a second boxagon space at 1118 Clement Avenue for a revolving presentation of Omnium Gatherum in 2007. They jumped ahead of Charlotte's Latin theatre curve with Limbo in 2008, and they triumphed in 2009 with the magnificent waterworld of Metamorphoses. With CAST's intrepid spirit, a thumping bellyflop like the current Ice Fishing on Europa was inevitable. After all, when fear of flopping prevails, trailblazing productions like Metamorphoses cannot happen.
The concepts behind Ice Fishing are exciting enough. For this project, producer Michael R. Simmons shuffles the customary workshop process, where playwrights submit their budding scripts, and actors, designers, directors, and choreographers jump in to help the writers see what they have. Simmons gathered people from all these disciplines at the outset as a company of "theatre-wrights," calling upon them to collectively produce a piece about the tantalizing possibility of alien life on Europa, the ice-covered moon floating around Jupiter.
A couple of tough fundamental challenges lie at the heart of Europa. The sci-fi flavor of the overarching theme doesn't bode well when we consider how little success there has been onstage in the sci-fi idiom. And getting artists to accept cross-disciplinary input, when they have been schooled to "trust your own instincts" and have often grown in confidence and daring to the extent that they've developed thick skins, is a dubious expectation and a tough sell. A playwright might seriously consider what an actor or director says, but ideas from a costume designer? And is a lighting designer really going to take notes from a playwright?
With multiple playwrights working on the script, Ice Fishing on Europa turns out to be a slickly structured suite of playlets -- or as the subtitle in the program puts it, "A New Play Festival." The seamless cavalcade of plays comes wrapped in a serviceable frame that plants a quartet of oddly dressed, oddly behaved aliens among us in the lobby and seats them in the audience when we enter the boxagon. Their onstage powwows precede and follow the action, offering discussion of their mission and observations on humans, audiences, and theatre. Zendyn Duellman, Ted Lacki, Amy Wada, and John Xenakis sport the goofball attire of these "Existential Aliens."
Of course, technical prowess is a CAST calling card, so costumes, AV, choreography, and lighting all rise to levels of polish that local 24-Hour Play Projects, 9X9@9 productions at Theatre Charlotte, and even Charlotte Rep's bygone New Plays in America have never aspired to. Four screens, one at each quadrant of the boxagon, flash an elaborate loop of abstract interstellar visuals. Two of the play segments feature no dialogue at all, combining choreography, surreal costume design, lights, and sound to tell their primeval story. "Emergence and Evolution" shows us the birth of an alien creature in an alien world at the beginning of Act 1, but "Homecoming" is merely a pointless rewind-reversal of "E&E" at the end of Act 2.
Otherwise, you'll find little wit, wisdom, poetry, emotion, depth, or drama in this collective effort. While it's quite possible that there was synergistic input from one or more of the playwrights into the pictorial beauties of "Emergence and Evolution," there was no comparable synergy flowing toward the script. Perhaps the actors, designers, and directors that Simmons assembled in his theater-wright community had no ideas -- or only bad ones -- to offer. More likely, the playwrights just weren't listening.
Broken into three parts and scattered across the two acts, "Wishing on a Star" is easily the most moribund of the pieces. Jennifer Lynn Barnette is the wife trying to rekindle the sexual spark in her marriage, and J.R. Adduci is the husband too glued to his telescope, observing action way out there on Europa, to respond to the lovely Barnette's overtures. Any promise that something cosmic might justify the husband's vigil is quickly extinguished, so we're left with only the success or failure of the seduction to look forward to. Not much suspense or originality to chew on here.
"Better Late Than Always" presents two longtime alien invaders who go over old times and centuries like two reunited vampires in an Anne Rice novel. Karina Roberts-Caporino and Tom Olson bestow a pulse on all this back story, and their observations on human history would work well enough amid stormier, more meaningful surroundings. "Full Circle" showcases Russell Rowe as Jupiter breaking up with Roberts-Caporino as Europa, bull head in hand as a parting gift. It's a crafty, domesticated reduction of mighty Greek mythology -- and an oblique reflection on the evening's planetary theme. But this isn't the high-protein feast promised by the theatre-wright concept. Wry references to the human/divine couple's problem child, the Minotaur, aren't the meat that most serious -- or fun-loving -- playgoers are looking for.
The stray references to lightning, Jupiter's signature weapon, will likewise alert the antennae of ticketholders with a modicum of mythic erudition. They're insufficient to ignite the lugubrious "FlashEnPoint" monologue with Roberts-Caporino portraying a disabled dancer, or later on, the "Flash Circuit Down" monologue delivered by Rowe as an RPI grad.
If the writers had truly bought into this process, the outcome might have been far different. Or not. To my mind, the journey that has become Ice Fishing on Europa began with a dubious choice of destination by Captain Simmons and proceeded with a catastrophic lack of cooperation and insight from his crew.