Caught in the Crossfire 

Lost Cause

First things first: I do not have a Star Trek fixation. I only watch it socially, I can stop any time I want, and I do not use Star Trek to overcome either inhibitions or depression. I have never awakened after a Star Trek binge in a darkened, unfamiliar room next to a stranger clad in nothing but prosthetic ear tips. I own neither a Starfleet dress uniform nor a copy of the Klingon-language version of Hamlet. But I've gotten enough exposure to Gene Roddenberry's universe to identify most of the regular characters and their histories, I can usually distinguish between Romulans and Vulcans, and I know from the First Directive.

Being steeped in Trek lore makes the experience of Lost Cause especially gratifying. Rather than the Trek universe, peopled with noble, generally likable people on a mission of pure discovery, here we have Jefferson Arca's gritty vision of a near future where the profit motive is an imperative, a man can captain a space vessel with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever, and crew members actually get angry, get addicted, and (gasp) get it on -- and boy, are there consequences. In other words, if you've avoided Star Trek because it seemed too unrealistic, Lost Cause might be more to your liking. Unlike the typical Trek episode with its neatly wrapped-up ending, Lost Cause raises more painful questions than it answers, and leaves the audience hanging.

This show is a pleasant surprise from Impact Theatre: a tense, thoughtful piece with some real dilemmas at its core and a minimum of extraneous nonsense. It's very down-to-earth for a space opera, and director Sarah O'Connell plays it accordingly.

A mining company spaceship is almost all the way home when the computer detects signs of intelligent life on an uncharted planet. Against the objections of his two most trusted crew members, Captain Dale Fletcher decides to investigate. The three shuttle down to the planet's surface, where they find themselves in the middle of a century-old war between two groups of human inhabitants, the descendants of a colony ship that was conveniently forgotten. Determined to bring both tribes home to Earth, Fletcher ends up just angering them. Meanwhile, the relationship between his doctor and his engineer deteriorates, and the latter becomes increasingly drug-addled.

There's a lot of stuff going on here that seems to reflect our current situation in the Middle East. The well-meaning captain (who got his job through a male relative) believes that he can resolve an ancient conflict between two tribes by the force of his will alone, but he has no real understanding of the situation. It soon becomes clear that the tribes would sooner destroy themselves than build a lasting peace. And, of course, bystanders get caught in the crossfire.

David Ballog gets the thankless task of animating Captain Dale Fletcher, a rules-obsessed man so poorly suited for his job or for any kind of advanced-level decision-making (his uncle owns the company) that by the middle of the first act, I was wondering why nobody had offed him yet. Ballog assays the role gamely, delivering his eye-rollingly clueless lines with conviction, moving with the stiffness one would expect from someone who's not really confident in his job and generally prone to making things worse.

Engineer Fred Hamlin (Christopher Morrison) gets all the best lines. As the loose cannon of the group -- and the man who ultimately will hold the fate of the ship, crew, and colony in his shaking hands -- he does nothing to inspire confidence, abusing drugs and firing off one-liners ("fashion, the root of all evil," he intones upon learning that the tribes are only distinguishable by the lengths of their hair). Offstage, Morrison (who also choreographed the show) calls the classes he teaches "Explosive Movement for the Stage," and it's clear why. As Fred, he is full of barely contained energy, talking with his body and bouncing around the tiny space. He is counterbalanced by Alyssa Bostwick (Dr. Cindy Sherwood), once again playing the voice of reason. As the only buffer between the engineer and the captain, Sherwood is calm, collected, and professional. It's when her past relationship with Fred is revealed that things start to get complicated -- and interesting. She's neither as ethical or as rational as she'd like people to believe; she's made some bad decisions, and now she just wants out.

Pete Caslavka returns to the La Val's stage as colonist Meric (who resembles the Tybalt he gave us in the recent Sub Shakes Romeo and Juliet); once again, he gets to play an angry, resistant character likely at any time to burst into a violent rage. Sadly, this script doesn't really give Caslavka enough to do -- he has a sizable, brooding presence and dignity that don't get fully utilized in this show. Meric's mate Thero (Jessica Hird, who did so much with her brief moment in the locally produced film Haiku Tunnel) is suitably tough and distrustful of the ship's crew, even as she longs to return to the home she's never seen -- a desire that overwhelms her sense of self-preservation.

Mentioned but never fully explored is the question of why the colonists are so intent on returning to Earth -- a home that they only know because of stories passed down through the generations since their colony was established -- especially since the nameless planet, as Dr. Sherwood notes longingly, features clean air and impossibly blue water. Probably the colonists are still angry at having been abandoned. This makes them seem like lost children, an image that disarms Captain Fletcher, who treats them accordingly -- to his own peril.

Arca's script touches briefly on many questions that could stand elaboration, although I suppose with all the running around and fighting there isn't space for lengthy exposition. The central question -- what is an appropriate sacrifice for peace? -- is spelled out clearly enough, however, and audiences will doubtless walk away debating how they would have handled the situation Captain Fletcher and his crew faced.

La Val's turns out to be the right space for this show, its dank, rattling confines adding to the claustrophobic feel usually achieved in space drama by narrow corridors and small, windowless rooms. The bare-bones set -- a podium, red lights -- leaves plenty of space for the generally well-choreographed fighting, and heightens the sensation that Captain Fletcher and his crew are free-falling into disaster. (One quibble I have with the otherwise unobtrusive set is the use of a floor cloth to indicate the surface of the mysterious planet -- it requires two cast members to thumpingly roll it out during scene changes.)

All in all, this is a clean, tight little show.

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