The post-Tonys summer haze is the time when New York theater tends to take a breather, with fewer high-profile openings until the fall. Quantity, however, has no bearing on quality, and with less competition for theatergoers’ dollars and time, there’s less excuse than ever not to go see Sovereign, Gideon Productions’ hidden gem currently playing at Long Island City’s Secret Theatre.
Sovereign shouldn’t be a secret to all; it’s the final installment in Mac Rogers’ visionary “Honeycomb Trilogy,” following in theatrically post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein of predecessors Advance Man and Blast Radius. For the un-indoctrinated, early events in “Honeycomb” saw an invasion of an insect-like alien species take over Earth, murdering most humans and enslaving the rest. An uprising, led by Ronnie Cooke, saw a war in which many of the survivors sacrificed their lives to extinguish the species and return the planet to some semblance of its initial human form.
Yes, the event of the trilogy took place on an epic, inter-planetary scale, and it was to Rogers’ credit that the playwright was able to cut through genre tropes and make the events of his plays both accessible and practical for a small stage and a company with limited resources. But what really serves each of these plays – which cohere as a trilogy and also each work as standalone works – was the emotional needle with which Rogers threaded his trilogy. Thanks both to Rogers and director Jordana Williams Sovereign succeeds most, and perhaps better than its two antecedents, as an intimate, emotional work, bridging the head and the heart without ever resorting to pathos or unearned sentiment. And it’s primarily the show’s two leads, Abbey and Ronnie Cooke, who provide the beating of that heart.
The show picks up twenty years after the events of Advance rocked the Coral Gables Cooke family and eight years after Blast. Gone are many of the action sequences and alien images of the earlier installments (though Sandy Yaklin’s set and Jeanne Travis’s highly evocative sound design remind us of past and present dangers.) Ronnie (originally played by Becky Byers, now played by Hanna Cheek), battle-scarred and hardened by a lifetime of fighting and loss, must lead her remaining followers on a new kind of quest: to reacclimatize to a life of liberation. And she must also face a decision that hits her closer than any other: whether or not to assassinate her wayward brother, Abbey (now Stephen Heskett, formerly David Rosenblatt), a traitor to the human cause. One of the central conceits to Rogers’ trilogy is that both siblings, in charting divergent paths, were governed by both reason and instinct. Neither was completely wrong or right, but made indefensible decisions caused by an indefensible conflict. Comparisons to real-life war abound in Sovereign, but are subtly tucked under the deepening rift between Abbey and Ronnie, and Cheek and Heskett could not be more captivating. Cheek oozes battle fatigue out of every pore and manages to lace in nuances of humor, vulnerability, self-doubt and even childlike reverie, while Heskett continually peels back the layers to show a man questioning the cause to which he has dedicated a lifetime. The emotional material here is so deft that it pushes for real estate on a par with Shakespeare, Ibsen and O’Neill.
If there is any deficit to Sovereign, it’s that the magnificent duet created by Cheek and Heskett cuts down on material for a talented supporting cast, including Matt Golden’s Zander, Ronnie’s by-the-book second-in-command, Erin Jerozal’s juvenile Claret, and Sara Thigpen’s damaged Fee. But as Sovereign, and indeed, the whole of “Honeycomb” teaches, there just isn’t time to do everything one might set out to do in life. So make the time to catch this show – you’ll regret it if you don’t.
June 14-July 1; $15-$18. The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City, www.gideonth.com .
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