Binge-Watching Sci-Fi Theater is the Future: The Honeycomb Trilogy

Binge-watching is just not for TV. We explore the benefits of the phenomenon in the sci-fi theater world with The Honeycomb Trilogy.

In 2012, Gideon Productions’ science fiction play triptych The Honeycomb Trilogy was slightly ahead of its time: you didn’t see much “geek theater” aside from a handful of Off-Off-Broadway productions; on Broadway, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was giving the fledgling subgenre a bad rap. Independent Gideon, meanwhile, staged three plays in six months, each installment getting a six-week run before moving on to the next one. It was an intense run that drew in old fans and created new ones. But plenty of people who came late to the party felt they missed out.

Yet just a few years later, the field has changed. Genre is very much in the mainstream thanks to Marvel and DC’s respective cinematic universes; we’re a bit more open to remakes and remounts (a good side effect of the Spider-Man franchise); and, most importantly, we binge-watch a staggering number of formerly serialized stories. Oh, and we know a hell of a lot more about Mars—that part is key. It’s a measure of Gideon’s savvy that they’ve decided to reframe this alien invasion story within our current entertainment context as a completely immersive, delightfully geeky (while simultaneously feels-inducing) all-day play marathon.

Now, you don’t have to take all three plays in at once. After all, Gideon is impressively staging Advance Man, Blast Radius, and Sovereign in rotation three nights a week, with many members of the massive ensemble juggling two different plays a week. You can spread out the experience if you so choose. But one of the most unique and engaging aspects of this remount is how you can also spend eight-and-a-half hours—and 20 years—in the mind of brilliant playwright Mac Rogers.

The Honeycomb Trilogy is an alien invasion saga on an epic scale, but it’s also a family drama. Its two main players, sister Ronnie and brother Abbie, live out the sins of their father, an astronaut with a radical plan to change the world. Instead, the arrival of a new, insectoid alien race strips humankind of their technology, surnames, civilization, and identity.

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Over the course of 20 years, we witness the human race rebuild itself—first as virtual slaves to their alien overlords, struggling to accept a world where everyone is a farmer, and then later as an awkwardly self-governing society that fumbles to rebuild its laws and social mores from long-unused collective memory. Yet, like the best kind of speculative fiction, the major, world-changing decisions are wrought from personal vendettas and selfish choices. Even before familial structures are dismantled, Abbie and Ronnie stand on polarizing ideological sides of the invasion, their opposition becoming the stuff of legend, and then of history.

Advance Man, the first of the three plays, starts not even five minutes into the future: two years after his return from Mars, astronaut Bill Cooke (Sean Williams, also one of Gideon’s main producers) is ever-so-slightly distant from his family, having given up space exploration in favor of growing organic food all over our home planet. Bill’s distractions make his wife Amelia (the superb Kristen Vaughn) suspect him of having an affair, a laughable suspicion once the play’s much higher stakes are established. But wherever Bill might have failed with his wife, he’s intensely aware of his children, the sensitive Abbie (David Rosenblatt) and his fiercely protective sister Ronnie (Becky Byers).

The third “child” of the family is Conor, another former astronaut who suffered a debilitating stroke on Mars, and is slowly relearning language and movement thanks to Amelia’s focused care and Bill’s patience. More so than any other forward-thinking father, Bill wants to prepare his kids for a particular future without disclosing exactly what that future looks like.

Early in Advance Man, Amelia wearily describes her children, her pride and joy, to a private investigator: “Abbie’s like his father. He’s brilliant and he feels everything in the world. Ronnie’s like her father. She’s so angry, and she never backs down.” For all its broad scope, The Honeycomb Trilogy is grounded by the constantly-shifting relationship between a brother and sister, from victim and protector to comrades, to ideological opponents, to outright enemies.

Blast Radius, the very Shakespearean middle installment of the trilogy, takes place 12-years-later and it’s dystopian all the way. The invasion of giant insectoid aliens, and the subsequent loss of technology and modern civilization, has forced a return to primitive tools and ways of living. There’s now futuristic slang and a breakdown of traditional relationship bonds, as well as constant talk of “the time before.” And did I mention that it takes place in the exact same set of Advance Man?

Here’s where some of the natural theater constraints establish the boundaries of this trilogy. Gideon’s venue, The Gym at Judson, doesn’t have a turntable set or the kind of backdrop that can be broken up and rebuilt with ease like on Broadway. All three plays take place in the Cookes’ Florida living room—it just goes through a lot of changes. While a movie would be tempted to (and right to) take advantage of various locations, the best theater chooses a single setting. Director Jordana Williams and technical director/props master Saundra Yaklin transform a typical suburban living room into a safe haven for pregnant women, then into a governor’s residence/makeshift courthouse… and then they put it all back together for the next show. See for yourself.

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I don’t want to give away too much of Blast Radius or Sovereign (the final installment set eight years later), because each sequel is directly linked to the consequences and fallout of its predecessor’s plot. Suffice to say, Abbie and Ronnie choose their sides early on—he finding more connection with the hive-mind Honeycomb, and she fighting for every human who was as helpless as her younger brother once was—and constantly come up against one another in their efforts to rebuild their world.

It’s the kind of sci-fi that eschews big budget production values to focus on how an alien invasion affects ordinary people, who are in turn forced to become major players. And really, that’s the most valuable part of a speculative story—not a planetwide loss of resources, but how people react to losing medicine, paper, and even glass bottles under layers of mud.

That doesn’t mean that Rogers loses sight of his grand scale: we never forget about the lurking presence of the bugs. They’re there, screeching and scratching just beyond the borders of the set; interestingly, almost every time the characters face the bugs, it’s looking through the fourth wall. The most we ever see is a leg, but it is one hell of a leg.

The emotions that these plays elicit are similarly both micro and macro. I was far from the only person heaving and sobbing at the two huge, important, yet awfully simple gestures that marked the end of Blast Radius. And the laughter! It peppered every play, nearly every scene. From teenage Ronnie and Abbie joking about finger-blasting to little moments of levity in even the darkest of dystopian futures, we are constantly reminded of humans’ ability to harness humor (intentionally and not) as a coping mechanism.

I can’t even pretend to be impartial about these plays. I first reviewed them over six months in 2012. It was a time of emotional and professional turmoil, as I had broken up with my first love and was suffering at a job that would similarly cut me loose just a few months after Sovereign ended. On that level alone, watching The Honeycomb Trilogy was a kind of therapy. I also drew inspiration from these plays, these frontrunners of a now fairly flourishing subgenre of theater. Indeed, a year or so after the trilogy concluded, I had reviewed shows about superheroes and malevolent AI, and produced my own plays about sex robots and caped crusaders.

In short, I’m very emotionally attached to this trilogy in the bittersweet way of someone who got to experience too-fleeting brilliance. My friends listened patiently but with increasing impatience as I described this incredible experience that they would never have the chance to see. Then came the Honeycomb marathons.

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Binge-watching The Honeycomb Trilogy  as I did last weekend, falls somewhere on the spectrum between bingeing Marvel’s Daredevil and watching the entirety of Black Mirror (which you really shouldn’t). Consider the end of Blast Radius to hit around Daredevil’s eighth episode, where you’re about as emotionally battered as Matt Murdock is physically; but thankfully, completing Sovereign isn’t quite as soul-destroying as taking in all of Charlie Brooker’s depressing visions of the future at once.

Rogers and Williams worked together to revamp each play, making the pieces work just as well as standalones as parts of a trilogy. While there were few radical revisions to the script, I noticed adjustments in a key scene between Ronnie and Abbie, and the amping up of certain motifs.

One character who got more play this time around was “The Bald Woman.” What starts out as one of Abbie’s creepy old drawings becomes an almost archetypal monster, the kind of universal horror of illness and mortality that existed before humans knew to fear giant bugs. I remembered only two mentions of The Bald Woman in the original trilogy—once in Advance Man and once in Sovereign—but here she gets at least two mentions per play.

While in some places the references almost seem like overkill, I realized that this is actually one of the trilogy’s running jokes: Abbie asking, “Do you remember The Bald Woman?” and Ronnie stiffening up and unconvincingly responding, “Noooo…” Even as a war hero, 20 years on, she’s suddenly vulnerable again. It humanizes her a lot more than I recall from the 2012 run.

Major kudos also goes to Byers and Rosenblatt for carrying the core of their characters through nonchalant teenagers to hardened twenty-something survivors. Equal consideration also goes to Hanna Cheek and Stephen Heskett, who pick up the characters in Sovereign, each bringing their own layer to their respective portrayals: Cheek enhances Ronnie’s nonverbal tics, burying the kinds of outbursts that Byers made physical into barely-concealed rage simmering under the clenching and unclenching of fists, and the limitations of a war injury to her leg; whereas Heskett transforms Rosenblatt’s almost pathetic yearning need to feel like part of a whole into a steely, heavily-borne exile.

Neither Abbie nor Ronnie are blameless, yet the actors balance the audience’s moments of revulsion with reluctant sympathy. Again, I credit binge-watching the trilogy for best crystallizing many of Rogers’ themes. As one review points out, an early scene laying out Ronnie and Abbie’s worldviews forecasts which sides they take when the bugs hatch. Sexuality also plays a major theme in the trilogy, in a way that’s prominent but never lurid or explicit. Ronnie would be called promiscuous, but her sexuality is the best example I’ve seen of a double-edged sword—a key method of convincing people to follow her orders, but also the only time she doesn’t have to think or act.

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While Abbie’s parents worry in Advance Man about him being bullied for being gay, he is the most sexually adventurous character in the trilogy, falling in love with men and women alike, humans or aliens looking out of human eyes. It’s the very definition of pansexual. In a present in which sex positivity is being increasingly celebrated and sexual orientation is being increasingly redefined, Abbie and Ronnie put human faces on both issues.

It would be a disservice not to mention the many other people we encounter in the post-invasion world. Many get only one or two scenes to make an impact, but stick with you: Clem (Alisha Spielmann), a brilliant mind dulled by the loss of modern civilization, who loves her deadbeat but earnest partner Dev (Seth Shelden) “anyway,” because what other option is there; Fee (Felicia J. Hudson and, later, Yeauxlanda Kay), who, like Amelia before her, redefines the meaning of motherhood; Zander (Matt Golden) and Tanya (Lori E. Parquet), self-taught lawyers constantly pitting a new set of laws against the realities of what humans’ values have transformed into.

And Conor! Jason Howard has one of the most difficult jobs of the entire ensemble, playing Conor first as a mental shut-in, battering at the walls of his own mind… and then as someone entirely different, a merging of Honeycomb and human minds, a sappy devotee of forbidden romance novels, and one of the most human characters in the entire trilogy.

Also, of course, there’s the Cookes. Even though I haven’t touched upon Bill and Amelia since the beginning of this piece, they’ve still been there the entire time—just like in the marathon, as their influences leave aftereffects on the plays after Advance Man.

In a trilogy whose characters include ambassadors and governors, there is a special touch to having a character who seems to be “nothing” more than just a homemaker–Kristen Vaughn plays Amelia’s frustration at her kids acting out coupled with what she perceives as her ambition snuffed out, only to find a reason to fan that flame. And as Bill, the man who creates the switch that will change the face of the Earth and the course of the human race, Sean Williams is mesmerizing to watch: shifting cannily between attentive father (but always with an odd edge) and calculating manipulator.

I keep coming back to this fictional family because above all, The Honeycomb Trilogy is about giving way to new life, whether that’s coaxing someone out of a figurative prison, coaxing bugs out of eggs, or coaxing a broken society into a new form.

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Another reason I recommend seeing this trilogy in one day is the camaraderie that binge-watching creates. In an interview with Chicago Magazine, writer-director Sean Graney, who staged all 32 ancient Greek plays in a 12-hour-performance, sums it up perfectly: “By the end of the day, you’ve watched stories with them, you’ve shared food with them, you got sprayed with blood with them—you’ve made a community for one day.” Replace the blood-spraying with ugly-crying, and you get the same result.

Like binge-watching television, binge-watching theater is the kind of experience that unites all age groups. In the break between Advance Man and Blast Radius, I listened in as a kid (who probably learned several new words like “finger-blasting” and several f-bombs) put aside his smartphone to talk to his grandparents over his predictions for what the aliens would do to Earth. After Blast Radius, I ate dinner with a guy my age and his grandfather, during which we dismantled themes of identity and alien “others” and body dysmorphia.

Something that binge-watching took away from traditional television viewing was the water cooler discussion: If you were marathoning a series by yourself or with a friend/significant other, you put yourself on a different timeline than other friends or coworkers, and lose out on the chance to discuss each episode on its own. But what I hope to see with binge-watching theater is the best of both worlds: intense discussions in-between shows with other audience members, as you all immerse yourselves in the world to the same degree.

An experience this immersive is also unique each time it happens. If you’ve gone to the three-hour, site-specific Sleep No More or the aforementioned Greek epic marathon All Our Tragic, you’ll have a different experience from another audience. So, while you’re watching hours and hours of theater, it’s still intensely personal and unlike any other theatrical moment.

In theater, they ask, “Why is tonight important?” Similarly, The Honeycomb Trilogy invites you to discover why spending a full day with this cast and crew is so vital.

The Honeycomb Trilogy runs through Nov. 14 at The Gym at Judson in New York City. You can catch Advance Man Tuesdays at 8 p.m., Blast Radius Thursdays at 8 p.m., and Sovereign Fridays at 8 p.m. Or you can marathon all three shows on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., 5 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. (No performance on Saturday, Oct. 31.) Find out more at Gideon Productions’ website.

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