In Review: Next Folding Theatre’s ‘Fred Nebula’

Does NASA’s recent discovery of the potentially life-bearing TRAPPIST-1 solar system have you thinking about jetting off on an interstellar odyssey? If you’re the type to do further research before vacating planet Earth, catch a showing of Fred Nebula.

Directed by Ryan Griffith of The Next Folding Theatre Company, Fred Nebula is an “epic episodic” play in which the audience plays spectator to the lives of a spaceship’s crew as they travel through an isolated nebula. After picking up a few hitch-hikers, the ship’s crew—many originally from Earth—must negotiate relations with an unfamiliar alien race and find their way around a “gravitational anomaly.” The action plays out in STU’s Black Box theatre; appropriately, the almost-amorphous venue will have viewers feeling as though they, too, are floating through the void. Even in the farthest reaches of space, however, clues of life back on Earth linger: Fred Nebula is clearly a product of the Maritimes.

Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)
Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)
Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)
Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)

The members of the Fredericton-based Next Folding Theatre Company devote themselves to producing theatrical works created by emerging Canadian artists. Specifically, Fred Nebula is the brainchild of eight different writers. Playwright and actor Lee Thomas describes the unconventional writing process, “We each went away in pairs and wrote a scene together in that pair, and then we all came together and read them. Then, we all went away and wrote another scene in a different pair.” The production is also a musical collaboration featuring an entirely original score.

The Next Folding Theatre Company endeavours to do drama differently. As Lee Thomas explains, “The name ‘Next Folding’ is kind of tongue-in-cheek, because we do things that other theatre companies don’t do. […] We had a dinosaur on stage for our production last year.”

Fred Nebula doesn’t have a dinosaur, but it does have an intergalactic dance party and space ghosts. Actor Melissa McMichael thinks that audiences will be impressed with the technical aspects of the production, because, “It’s got that early Star Trek vibe to it, where it’s like, ‘our set might be made out of boxes, but it’s really cool!’ It’s low-budget sci-fi.”

Creating intergalactic aesthetic on a local budget might seem like a doomed mission, but Fred Nebula pulls it off. Next Folding uses the Black Box theatre well; mesmerizing projections establish the setting (space needs stars, after all) and advance the plot. A genius use of lighting showcases two very different interrogations. Scenes morph one into another with the help of a capella vocal interludes performed by the cast. An ambassador and her assistant are perfectly costumed in rhinestones and green velvet with lipstick to match, and the ship’s robot—sporting pink dreads and shiny high-tops—fits the part just as well as any of George Lucas’s metal creations.

Fred Nebula’s script and story is as thoughtful as its production value. The play features an unconventional but welcome blend of horror and comedy, opening with a ghost story and often having the characters encounter unexpectedly spooky space creatures. The script is peppered with Maritimer-friendly references: the crew’s meals are made in accordance with the Canada Food Guide, lauded by the ship’s scientist as the “best in the world,” one member of the crew mentions their stop at “Circle G” back on Earth, and another suggests adding donair sauce to the dinner menu. There is also a subtle shout-out to a certain “yuge” figure in American politics.

It’s not all snappy references, though: Fred Nebula is host to a romance or two. The audience sympathizes with Gabby for loving a robot who isn’t programmed to feel emotion. Sam is forced to observe in close quarters as her beloved friend navigates a relationship that may not be right for her. As it turns out, even space explorers aren’t immune to love triangles.

Fred (Brad Parker/The East)
Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)
Fred Nebula (Brad Parker/The East)

Indeed, the crew of Fred Nebula seems to have taken distinctly Earthly concerns onboard. Lee Thomas explains that, for thoughtful viewers, the play can hold its own as social commentary: “Sometimes, you don’t notice what is going on around you until you hold a mirror up. That’s what a lot of sci-fi does, and that’s what a lot of theatre does. [In Fred Nebula], we look at the way we treat each other when things are going well; we look at the way we treat each other when things are going poorly; we look at the way that we treat outsiders in our community.”

Anxieties aboard the spaceship arise when members question how protocol seems to prioritize some ideals over others. Tensions on the ship are exacerbated by a passenger from a war-torn planet, suspected by some as being “genetically psychopathic.” Still, others think that her help on the ship stems not from an ulterior motive but a considerate personality. This sort of conflict really should be resolved, as Earth is implied to be all but destroyed perhaps in part because its citizens cannot play nicely.

Actor Corenski Nowlan emphasizes the entertainment value of the play while acknowledging that audiences can take away something more, too: “mostly, it’s to be a fun experience, but there’s a lot of social commentary that’s sort of sneaked into the various acts. I think that a really big theme of it is having a sense of home and family.”

Many of Fred Nebula’s crew members are frustrated because they miss their home and, more importantly, having a sense of belonging; Steve complains, “we’re losin’ our identity out here!” Though the characters may be acting out our wildest, most futuristic dreams in outer space, their desires are timeless. During an unwanted team bonding session, one shipmate reveals, “I want a better life for my daughter,” another, simply, “I want to be respected.”

FRED NEBULA is playing Friday, March 3rd and Saturday, March 4th at 7:30pm in STU’s Black Box Theatre. Admission is 15$ General/10$ Students and Seniors.

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