Back at the apocalypse factory: Star Killing Machine reviewed

Luc Tellier and Kristi Hansen in Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre production. Photo by Ryan Parker

Luc Tellier and Kristi Hansen in Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre production. Photo by Ryan Parker

It’s playful. It’s smart. It’s playful about being smart. It’s funny. It’s a musical. And, oh, did I mention?, it’s about the end of the world.

Yes, on the statistical probability charts, Star Killing Machine is right off the grid.

The strangest thing happened to me Friday night, thanks to Clinton Carew (book and lyrics) and Kris Schindel (music). I took a shuttle to a high-security facility in the Far North. And I arrived, with a couple of employees, in a daily workaday world we all know.

Working stiffs putting in their shifts are doing the usual — you know, surreptitiously surfing the net or sneaking a smoke, gossiping about promotions, avoiding the human resources manager, making and rebuffing advances, hooking up in liaisons they don’t think anyone else knows about.

The thing is, they’re scientists. And their job, along with support staff and layers of middle-management, is to develop a machine that will destroy the sun — and hence the world and all human life.

Under the circumstances, “progress” and “success” are unusually equivocal notions. And the idea of a “break-through,” well, no one really wants to go there, at least not farther than the day-to-day. Compromised and conflicted? Ring any bells, fellow citizens?

The company sings an ode to the sun: “I like the sun because without the sun there would be no sunny days.” One character expands on the notion. “I like the universe because without the universe I have too many things and nowhere to put them….”

Remarkably, Star Killing Machine, the large-scale (10-actor) inspiration of the small-scale indie company Broken Toys Theatre (in cahoots with Fringe Theatre Adventures and Azimuth), takes you into the heart of this world and its work force, fast and without a scrap of narration.

This they do the old-fashioned way: well-placed songs with witty lyrics; amusing, smartly written dialogue; imaginative cheap-theatre theatricality (design by Kevin Green). Ah yes, and acting. How many jukebox musicals can say the same? I’m looking at you Mamma Mia.

The characters are vividly individualized in the performances. We meet sad-eyed Simon (Garett Ross), a wry, knowing high-ranking brainiac who seems to having a crise de conscience about the contradictory nature of his professional life. He gets some of Carew’s funniest lines, and leads a delightful song about his favourite thing about a job that’s bringing him down. It’s a production number, choreographed entirely for a corps de ballet on office chairs, who twirl and hang and sail on and offstage on their rolling chairs, upside down. 

Garett Ross, in Star Killing Machine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Garett Ross, in Star Killing Machine. Photo by Ryan Parker.

My Rolling Chair, like the other songs in the show, is culled from an early semi-released album, and arranged by musical director Scott Shpeley. He leads an onstage band as well as playing a character who always has a musical instrument in hand.    

Janice (Chantal Perron) is the tigerish manager, prowling through the facility sniffing out slackers, or fresh meat. Apocalypse statistician Brody (Cody Porter) finds an under-the-radar spot to smoke, and meets twitchy, intense Kate (Tatyana Rac) who points out that smoking can kill you. Porter doubles, amusingly, as an interactive spam-bot that Tara (Kristi Hansen) — of the ‘just doing my job’ school of survival — meets online. 

At the outset we meet Pippa (Elena Porter), a newish employee down in the mouth about getting dumped, and perky young Casey (Luc Tellier), just back at the facility from a leave of absence. “Hey, you’re alive,” says his boss Simon looking up at him. “Are you still crazy d’ya figure?” There are reasons for this time off, and I must leave you to discover them for yourself; Tellier is excellent as the unravelling young genius.

Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre musical by Clinton Carew and Kris Schindell. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Star Killing Machine, a Broken Toys Theatre musical by Clinton Carew and Kris Schindel. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The apocalyptic pursued in the context of the ordinary workaday world: that’s the engine of Star Killing Machine. And it will see you through the left turn into the philosophical complications of Act II, which addresses, in a startlingly interactive black comedy way and at length (possibly too much of that), the possibilities and limitations of the spiritual world when confronted with mortality and death.

Act III, a fleeting one, takes us to the end of the world where time is either infinitely big or infinitely small. And the lingering image, of a band of humans on a raft, drifting in nothing, contemplating memory, meaning, and love, is like nothing you’re going to see onstage in a musical any time (or space) soon.

Not everything works in Star Killing Machine, and I must admit I lost the thread sometimes in Acts II and III. But discovering a musical comedy this ambitious and smart, this quirky, and this far off-centre feels like getting lost in the desert and finding a metro ticket.

What matters, in the end? There’s a lively song about that, too. And it’s addressed with Carew’s dark wit. “Depression could be a song,” concedes Pippa. “But who would sing it?” Good point. 

Highly recommended.

REVIEW

Star Killing Machine

Theatre: Broken Toys in association with Fringe Theatre Adventures, as part of Azimuth Theatre’s “emerging company” 2016-2017 lineup

Created by: Clinton Carew (book and lyrics) and Kris Schindel (music)

Directed by: Clinton Carew

Starring: Elena Porter, Chantal Perron, Tatyana Rac, Luc Tellier, Scott Schpeley, Kristi Hansen, Cody Porter, Garett Ross, Rebecca Merkley, Ryan Parker

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Jan. 29

Tickets: fringetheatre.ca

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