Reproductive rights cuts both ways: the government deciding that you may not have a child comes from the same authoritarianism that tells you that you must continue an unwanted pregnancy. Given current grim news about the impending SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, that thought is unavoidable when viewing Zoe Kazan’s dystopian After the Blast.
After the Blast
Through 6/11: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; industry night Mon 5/30, 7:30 PM; understudy night Wed 6/8, 7:30 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, brokennosetheatre.com, pay what you can.
It’s not really what Kazan’s play (now in its local premiere with Broken Nose Theatre under JD Caudill’s direction) is mostly about, but as times change, so do the meanings of the stories we tell. In fact, I’d argue that After the Blast (which I first saw in 2017 at New York’s Lincoln Center) is really about the human need to create stories in order to survive, particularly when survival at best is dreary and at worst is unbearable.
Anna (Kim Boler) and Oliver (Ruben Carrazana) are a married childless couple who were both raised underground; a series of disasters has rendered the surface of Earth uninhabitable. While Oliver works with a group of other scientists to figure out when (or if) humans can ever go back “up top,” Anna broods over not having a child of her own; in a vicious circle, she and Oliver have been denied access to needed reproductive technology because of her mental health, which makes her more depressed, which makes it harder to get approval. Unlike many of the other underground dwellers, Anna refuses to “sim,” or use simulation programs, to soothe herself. (Well, maybe to make the otherwise-unpalatable food available to humans edible, but otherwise, no dice.)
Running out of options and worried about his wife’s emotional state, Oliver brings home a small robot for Anna to train as an assistant for the blind, telling her that it will give her a sense of purpose. She names the machine Arthur, and forms a bond with him, almost as if he were an actual child.
Voiced and operated by Arielle Leverett, the puppet/robot (cunningly designed by Jabberwocky Marionettes) becomes an ingratiating presence, and one that does indeed lift Anna’s spirits. (A scene where they harmonize together on 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” is particularly endearing.) But there’s an untruth at the heart of why Arthur is there, and when Anna finds out, it threatens to destroy her marriage. Boler and Carrazana embody the best and worst of married life, where complementary personality traits (Anna’s emotional receptivity and Oliver’s determined cheeriness) sometimes sustain each other, and at other times make it feel like a prison sentence.
Therese Ritchie’s appropriately stark setting, with paintings of green vines on the black walls, suggests the desire for the humans onstage to rise back up out of the earth. Kazan’s post-apocalyptic fable asks us to consider how much we depend on simulations (or lies, if you will), to keep us going when planning for the future itself feels like a cruel falsehood.