NOBLE PARASITES by Mike McPhaden, directed by Rebecca Brown, with Kate Hewlett, Julian Richings and Amy Rutherford. Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, April 5), opens Wednesday (April 11) and runs to April 29, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $25-$30, Sunday pwyc ($10 sugg), previews $15. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
You don't need elaborate spaceships or mind-bending special effects to make science fiction work. At least not onstage.
Just ask playwright Mike McPhaden, whose futuristic Noble Parasites begins previews tonight (Thursday, April 5).
"I was raised on Star Wars and I love all that space-opera stuff of laser beams and Wookies," McPhaden admits. "But in high school we did a unit on science fiction, and I discovered dystopian stories like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, which were pretty low- tech."
Noble Parasites grew out of those sour-future kinds of tales in which we've made a mess of the planet and human relationships are more tense than amicable.
The first act, called The Bookworm, looks at two cousins in the distant future, when people live a rigidly controlled life in a subterranean society.
Its companion piece, Sea Change, is set only a few decades from now, when reality games and politics ask a high price of those who play either or both.
"The genesis of the script was something I wrote a few years ago for Project Just Being," recalls McPhaden, an actor as well as a playwright. "Several other authors and I were shown a mosaic and asked to write a 10-minute piece based on our impressions of it.
"What I saw was an elemental woman, strong and sad, and I had a sense that she was Mother Nature, a Gaia figure who had somehow become our enemy.
"I was working on another script at the time, one that was pretty draining, and I wanted to have real fun with this new piece. My pipe dream was to write science fiction, but part of me said that sci-fi could only be entertainment and was" - and here his voice takes on a comically snooty tone - "beneath the serious art of theatre."
Good thing McPhaden didn't listen to that snooty persona. The brief script he called The Witch evolved into a longer script that was a SummerWorks 2005 hit, and it's been slightly expanded here as The Bookworm.
"I discovered that theatre is well suited to a story that transports us to another world, and I wasn't obliged to have all the sexy bells, whistles and eye candy. In fact, theatre's adept at looking at how the big picture of society affects the individual; better yet, it can still be really cool sci-fi at the same time."
McPhaden's probably best known for his wonderful play Poochwater, a period piece in which a man realizes he's lost his identity. It was, like Noble Parasites, a work studded with laughs.
"I love comedy that comes out of high stakes," he says. "I don't understand why desperation is comic, but desperation reveals character nicely. When you're in a difficult situation, you're not cool or unflappable or well spoken; when we see people struggling onstage like that, we identify with them.
"And theatre is clever at bringing us together in a room, a live audience, to contemplate something about human experience.
"We want to do that, we need to join in on that investigation on how hard it is to be a human being. At some level, it's rewarding to sit in a room with strangers and ask questions to which you don't have answers."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Mike McPhaden combines his writing and his acting