Bryce Wissel’s EPHEMERA here to stay

by Darren Callahan

Bryce Wissel

Playwright Bryce Wissel

Isolation breeds all sorts of odd human behavior. We know this from life, but also from films and fiction, particularly with stories set in outer space. But how often is outer space isolation explored in the live theatre? Sci-fi is a tough sell on an audience that is seated only 15 feet away; isolation is hard to grasp when you’re elbow to elbow with a sold-out audience. Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s approach to the challenge: comedy and complete immersion. Starting with actors dressed as androids who escort the audience into the belly of a space station, to the uniquely spectacular two-tone set, and its truthful performances, Polarity aims their lasers on pure escapism with a high production value.

Ephemera, Polarity’s Spring 2011 production, written by Bryce Wissel and directed by Laura Sturm, is an existential comedy that enjoys both a simple twist of language, such as:

DAVY
Can I answer your question with a question?

BOWIE
No.

DAVY
Then what did I just do?

…to the complex yearnings of astronauts, ape-men, and mariachi-singing robots.

From his home in Los Angeles, Wissel says, “I like to think that my brand of comedy is intelligent, but it’s not afraid to get absurd, or a little dirty. More to the point, my take on the plight of the characters in the play is basically a version of what we all face every day: an unspoken knowledge that sooner or later, we’re all going to die, and that everyone finds their own ways of dealing with (or avoiding) that fact. Hilarious, huh?”

The fact that Wissel is able to successfully mine a hefty helping of jokes from a hyper-realized version of The Alamo – source material that gives the play its characters’ names and a structural framework – is a testament to the strength of his writing.

“The first time I encountered Ephemera was (in selecting) the play for The Dionysos Cup (Polarity’s annual new plays festival,)” remarks Sturm. “As I read it, I could just envision it in my head. All of the lights and the bells and whistles and people running around like crazy… Then when we decided to choose it as one of our season pieces I was like, ‘Ooh. Now’s my chance…’”

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling also immediately recognized the play’s commercial potential, as well as the effect it might have on an audience. “It was a really interesting show that attracted all of the directors. It demands a huge amount of attention to detail in the production, but when that attention is there, it pays off with the viewers.” Wissel says little of the play’s text has been changed since the Dionysos Cup. “I’ve been working on this play on and off since 2005, so its major revisions all happened before I sent it to Polarity. Some minor dialogue changes have been made, however, to improve some punch-lines or to make certain parts of the story clearer.”

Regarding science fiction on stage, it’s been done, but rarely. Though the production will ‘geek-out’ the hardcore sci-fi fan, Wissel cautions, “I wasn’t drawn necessarily to science fiction as much as I was to the idea of taking a very sad story and marrying it to a fantastical world. I was hugely influenced by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. I love the Back to The Future movies, and when I was younger I was a little bit of a Star Wars nerd. But for Ephemera, it actually owes a lot to the movie Shaun of the Dead.” The comparisons between a zombie apocalypse and The Alamo in space are apt. This is thinking-person’s comedy that’s not immune to pratfalls and ape-man shenanigans. With enough jokes to provide momentary laughs and enough drama to last in the mind, Ephemera promises to be a unique and entertaining, and linger beyond the short disregard of its title.

Ephemera runs through May 1. Playwright Bryce Wissel will join the cast of Ephemera for a post-show talk-back after the 8pm performance, Saturday, April 30th. Polarity Ensemble Theatre is in residence at Wicker Park’s Josephinum Academy. The theater is located at the 1500 N. Bell Street entrance. Tickets are $19 general admission. Senior discount tickets (age 65 and older) are $15, and student discount tickets are $10 with valid ID. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Purchase tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/157008 or call the box office at 800-838-3006. For more information visit http://www.petheatre.com/ephemera.html

Special thanks to Darren Callahan for this report.

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