Downtown’s Urbanite Theatre has thrived on presenting new voices in small-scale, minimally produced shows for its first two seasons, and the current production, Pilgrims, continues the tradition of offering a work by a playwright audiences are probably not familiar with, Claire Kiechel. But Pilgrims, more than probably any other show Urbanite has done, also takes a step forward in its production and technical values, and meets those challenges well.
Pilgrims, despites its title, has little to do with those Thanksgiving Day stereotypes, at least on the surface. It’s set not in the past, but in the future, where a spaceship is transporting passengers to another planet. And that sleek spaceship design (by Jerid Fox), along with some effective light and sound work (by Ryan Finzelber and Alex Pinchin, respectively) takes us along on their journey.
We only meet two of those passengers, the first called simply The Soldier (Brendan Ragan) and the other The Girl (Betsy Helmer), who are sharing a room dominated by a bed at its center. The Soldier is understandably upset upon learning that he has a roommate when he’d planned to be alone on what is for him a return visit. And the bubbly, talky nature of the Girl, who says she’s just 16, definitely goes against his grain.
But the play’s other character, a ship steward named Jasmine (Cameron Morton, decked out in a brilliant white uniform and hat), whose cheery demeanor also wears on the Soldier, says she’s unable to do anything about the situation, because the ship is full. And then things get even worse when she delivers the news (still cheerily) that there is a virus on the ship and the duo will need to be quarantined in their rooms for the whole long trip.
You might expect the situation to turn sexual under these circumstances, and, eventually, in a way, it does. But both the Soldier and the Girl have past traumas that affect the way they interact with others, and any kind of true intimacy is fraught.
Pilgrims is part sci-fi, part comedy, part horror, part love story, and it’s concerned not only with the humans on this ship (spoiler alert: Jasmine, FYI, is not human but a programmed robot, and a convincing one) but with what inevitably happens when cultures (whether Puritans and Indians or space travelers and “aliens”) collide. Being a colonist places certain pressures on the colonist as well as those colonialized, and Kiechel succeeds in exploring that dynamic through her mix of genres.
Ragan and Helmer, who must work together in very physical ways onstage, are (under the direction of Carl Forsman) committed and adept. They make the transitions from playing funny “games” to pass the time (imitating hard-boiled detective and femme fatale, or being adrift on a boat in a sea of lava), to more intense scenes where we see what their pasts have inflicted on them to, perhaps, more hopeful moments that move them forward.
It’s all fresh and absorbing, and at just 85 minutes with no intermission, tautly told. Be warned; there is strong language and brief nudity in Pilgrims, which continues through Sept. 10 at Urbanite. For tickets call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.