I’m going to plead ignorance; when I first saw the press release for the new play, Citizens of the Empire, and its subtitle “A Space Opera,” I didn’t know what to expect. I knew, based on the cast, that it would not likely feature an actual opera, but I had my research cut out of me. Fortunately, I spent ten minutes on Google, found my explanation, informed my friends (some of whom had already bought tickets), and prepared myself to enjoy the next saga in the science fiction genre. With this appreciation for science fiction, its structure, its limitations (it’s not a flawless genre), and its predictable plot, I set out to enjoy this new play by Kevin Mullins. The highlight is not the script, but in Lindsay Eagle’s outstanding work coaching and developing the talented troop of actors. Together, they rise above the derivative plot to create nuanced performances, interesting dynamics, and engaging moments that allow us to pause and reflect on where we are as a society, socially and politically, and where we might possibly be in hundreds of years.
Mullins opens his play on an off-note with a predictable introduction to three rebels who are released from a freezing of sorts, only to realize that they are far from saved. These three characters, Josephine Antonelli(played with convincing sensuality by Alissa Cordeiro), a former sex worker; Rex T-1-5-23 (played with stiff presence and even more rigid morality by Kristen Heider); and our hero, Marcus Kent (played with excellent conflict and chemistry by James Hayward), rescued by Sydney “Sid” Azzi (played with nice touch by Kathleen C. Lewis), form our chief introduction to Mullins’ world. It’s just not a satisfactory moment or introduction with a cheap escape trick, stuffy dialogue, and a dramatic lack of tension. Director Lindsay Eagle fights against Mullins’ lack of conflict and tension throughout the piece, notably emphasizing the characters’ relationship and minimizing the often-apparent lack of rising action. Luckily, Eagle is a master at shaping characters and chemistry.
We are thrust into a power struggle in deep space, as families fight for power, rebels argue for political and social activism and change, and love triangles are formed and broken. The Princess Evelyn Martus (played by the outstandingly commanding and conflicted Melissa M. deJesus) might be heir to the Empire, but Lady Petrov (played by the powerful Juliet Bowler) has other plans and they focus on her family’s dominance in the galaxy, notably her daughter, Naomi (played with stiff reverence but growing sensitivity by Katharine Daly) and Griffin (played with wonder and boyish charm by Johnny Quinones). Rounding out the powerful faction of political dominance is Edward Lydell, a commander in the Shipping Guild (played by David N. Rogers, who also serves as a dramaturg). A high-class rent boy, Rafi Bowman (played by Michael John Ciszewski), joins the royal party as Griffin’s rebound, after Hayward’s Marcus Kent joins and leads the rebellion and leaves his former love.
The first act drags under necessary but cumbersome exposition, switching between the present and past in clunky transitions of memory and inaction. Often, something in the present jogs a character’s recollection of a past event, fleshing out the play’s world for the audience, but the present’s lack of action in order to explain these past encounters hinders the play’s development. The epic world of this space opera seems more than the play can handle, and Act 1 offers little to explain. By Act 2, a notable switch to a course of action by our dueling forces, the Petrov Family and Marcus Kent and his rebels, moves as a much steadier pace. Bowler’s Lady Petrov is notably outstanding in dripping each of her lines with calculated menace and manipulation; her ability to turn on her charm with certain allies and ravage others with her ruthlessness makes her a character to whom you can’t avert your eyes or ears when she is onstage. Likewise, Hayward’s Marcus emerges as a hero worthy of our respect and loyalty, creating many tender moments with both deJesus’ Princess Evelyn and Quinones’ Griffin. deJesus accomplishes much with Evelyn’s little character development, finding nuance in the silence and her reactions. Similarly, Quinones succeeds in creating and portraying a more-leveled portrayal of a gay character which never minimizes the rest of Griffin’s personality; he is a character who happens to love men and their company, and Quinones does not let himself be defined by his love stories.
Megan F. Kinneen’s set is worthy of accolades for its use of levels, colors, innovative structure, and space. It fills the intimate space in the Calderwood Pavilion unlike many other sets in that space before this production. Ian King’s lighting supplements Kinneen’s set, but King’s lighting could do more to highlight and assist telling this story. The transitions between past and present are one notable example, but many more opportunities felt wasted or, at least, minimized because of the lack of effective lighting. Erica Desautels’ costumes are often extremely effective in imagining this futuristic world with her own touch of class, personality, and style, particularly, Lady Petrov’s gowns, Griffin’s accents, and Marcus Kent’s development over the course of the play. One of the least effective elements, however, was the choreography, both dance and fight. While the rapiers-dueling had some nice accented moments with the play’s dialogue, other fights (including slaps) were weakly choreographed and staged, breaking moments of dramatic tension and my attention for the play. The dance choreography felt stiff, even in the most tender of moments, and the actors could use a greater flair to enhance these embraces and affectionate instants.
The story is overly predictable. For a more detailed explanation than I could possibly give, see Ian Thal’s review on ArtsFuse, describing why the play is derivative of other science fiction stories. While I appreciate a playwright who draws upon other literature and popular through-lines, the lack of development in this play towards advancing the narrative and exploration of the genre is discomforting. I worried that I missed something; doubtless new plays are more difficult to write than review, and another viewing could bring new perspective for me. Boston Public Works succeeds in creating access and resources for playwrights to produce their original works, a rare treat for audiences to experience part of the creative process along with the production team. This important work is worthy of supporting, even if not every play is a finished product; our thoughts, enjoyment, and reactions are an essential part of the play's evolution, and we should be excited to join it. Enjoy the play for its excellent characterization and acting; don’t expect a plot or story that advances your thoughts of the future, space, or, least of all, opera.