Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
By Ann Marie Healy
Directed by Lindsay Eagle
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Somerville) What Once We Felt is science fiction that distills contemporary anxieties into a thinly veiled future. The bedrock of Ann Marie Healy’s dystopia, which premieres in Boston for the first time, is literary digitization, a bleak economy with a suppressed lower class, deplorable health care conditions, iPhone obsessions, and some unlikely but remarkable advances in artificial insemination. The play will make an excellent artifact of our age group. Though the mask this society wears to disguise its relation to our own is transparent, so is the world-building and the logic behind a woman-only, caste-system culture. The mechanics are questionable, but the anti-utopian horror that Flat Earth Theatre creates is sublimely creepy.Chiefly narrated in a waif-ish performance by Violet (Colleen Moore), writer Macy (the delightfully caustic Kelly Chick) is struggling to sell a novel with her business-minded, scathing agent, Astrid (Mary Ferrara). They’re able to pawn off the book to multi-media mogul, Claire Monsoon (Emily Kaye Lazzaro), as the “last print book in the world” (repeated several times lest you forget) before the industry goes fully digital. In tangential stories, a couple (Nicole Dunn and Kamela Dolinova) decides to “download” a baby and Cheryl (Alissa Cordeiro), a woman in a menial job, takes care of her ailing mother. The play weaves clever jokes with tragic moments and the tonal chemistry is well executed.
Arguably, What Once We Felt’s largest conceit is that society has been separated into two groups, Keepers and Tradepacks. The former lives a sickness-free existence. The latter “Tradepacks” are stricken with various cancers and terminal illnesses, but the explanation as to why is limited to Violet’s claim that they “carry diseases away from the world.” Why this voodoo transference works, or how it’s even maintained, is frustratingly ambiguous.
Macy finds herself embroiled in a potential Tradepack revolution, though why there hasn’t been one before this is vague. One of the editors working on her novel, Laura (Meredith Saran), helpfully points out her book’s political allegory. Their conversations produce some unexpected results.
Sadly, the rest of the play sticks to well-worn sci-fi tropes. Even the unexplained female-only world lacks depth. From a purely genre perspective, this world may be horrifying, but it’s all surface.
And Flat Earth Theatre pushes to do as much with that surface as they can. Director Lindsay Eagle and set designer Allison Olivia Choat immerse us in an affective illusion with brave choices and excellent set pieces, whether electronic or literary. Their vision is a chilling and convincing one.
When I left the theater, I was still haunted by the grim future What Once We Felt depicts. It was with further reflection that the illusion unraveled. As someone in the publishing industry, some of the digitizing jokes ring true, but the conclusion is grave and mean-spirited. Healy predicts the full decline of original thought. While I agree something critical is lost with physical books, I don’t think the play’s extreme view is very persuasive.
Besides that, What Once We Felt already feels dated. I’m not even sure “downloading babies” was cutting edge when the play came out in 2009. Flat Earth Theatre is a fun, creative company with a great feel for actors (Lazzaro and Saran’s performances particularly stand out). I just hope it decides to expend its energy on more ambitious projects in the future.