Reaching astronomic heights with Fred Nebula

Keeping up with their standard of ambitious science fiction, The Next Folding Theatre Company’s latest show Fred Nebula pushes the boundaries of what theatre is.

The episodic space opera, directed by Ryan Griffith, tells the story of a futuristic space crew getting stranded in the middle of deep space. As cosmic cabin fever sets in, the crew deal with changing social ties and conflicting interests, all while managing loneliness, existential crises and a reoccurring “gravitational anomaly.”

The play’s episodic structure is its most unique trait, not only by paying homage to the Star Trek franchise, but by allowing its eight writers to put their own spin on things. Each ‘episode’ had its own distinct plot, blending comedy, horror and drama all while holding social, supernatural and existential undertones.

“We wanted to take [our collaborative play] template and see how far we could push it,” said Griffith. “We like doing things that we haven’t seen before on stage, and we’d never seen a space play before.”

Fred Nebula works as a social experiment in space and explores how groups work when in close confined spaces. The theme of isolation is shown in the minimalist stage structure and bizarre original music. Members of the crew are constantly reminded that they are in the middle of nowhere, light years from home. It’s a demonstration of cosmic cabin fever and works as a character study to really drive the play forward.

The play also tries to stay socially conscious and doesn’t shy away from themes like relationships, war politics, privilege and abuse of power. One scene brings up xenophobia as the alien refugee Aia, played by Amelia Hay, is considered a threat because her home planet is a war-zone. Another scene uses food to start a conversation about diversity and making change despite a rigid and rationalizing social system that benefits the few.

“Like a lot of science fiction, it’s used to shine a light on humanity,” said Lee Thomas, one of the writers who also plays the part of Communications Director. “It’s much easier to talk about things like racism when you’re talking about aliens.”

The script is peppered with pop culture references, particularly with elements of the sci-fi genre. The use of colour to represent roles, structure of the control room and even switching out most of the cast in Act II are only some of the play’s Star Trek references. Pieces like Dune, Red Dwarf, and Interstellar pop up in the show, and a conversation involving Maritime stereotypes cements Griffith’s intention to reflect life in a small New Brunswick town.

It’s important to remember the play’s episodic structure, or you will be confused. Continuity doesn’t work the same way it would for another play, and the switch from alien ghosts to team-building exercises without any mention of the former could be jarring. This said, with the homages to sci-fi works, themes, balanced direction and writing, and a strong attention to detail, Fred Nebula once again proves The Folding Theatre Company’s knack for making thoughtful and beautiful pieces on a local budget.

Fred Nebula was performed in the Black Box theatre March 2-4.

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