ASU Tempe's Binary Theatre Looks for Answers with Earthlings, Tonight Through Sunday

The setup: So Binary Theatre Company is the name of the current incarnation of the student-run live theater production organization (they're not a gang; they're a club) under the auspices of Arizona State University Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' School of Film, Dance, and Theatre. That is one of the rare times you'll see us bother to give the whole name of that academic unit, because holy crap. But it is descriptive and accurate.

And Binary, to continue in the vein of definition, is an experience-maker. An undergrad doesn't have to be admitted to a specific degree program to participate; it's a way to learn, as early as possible, that artists have to create their own opportunities to get their stuff out there a lot of the time. This spring wraps up Binary's third season, and the current show, Earthlings, shares a brand-spankin'-new local play (by co-director Beth May) that is, in a somehow life-affirming and darkly humorous way, the stuff of one's worst nightmares.

See also: ASU Tempe's Theatre Grad Cohort Presents The Fall of the House of Escher

The execution: May's script is stronger on character and dialogue than a lot of the new works we get to see, and that's what raises the stakes, makes us care, and keeps things perking along no matter what small quibbles you might have with the plot. And if you have? Honestly, can you say what decisions you'd make if you knew you and your entire species would be extinct within a month? Because that's what we have here.

One would like to think that there wouldn't be all that much rioting, looting, killing, raping and whatnot, even in the East Bronx, when humans knew those would be their final actions. What difference would money or possession make? Wouldn't you want to give away and share what others wanted to steal and see whether we could make Heaven on Earth for at least five weeks?

But those are only the initial questions, and some of the simplest ones, that Earthlings couldn't help prompting me to ask myself. As seven very different people sought shelter (and, sometimes, other goals) within St. Mark's Church, I marveled at reminders of the instinctive will to live and love and how firmly a person might hold some values even in the face of ultimate, complete uncertainty.

The timing of this production, while Darren Aronofsky's Noah is in cinemas and also during Easter season -- in fact, Earthlings drew a sizable crowd on Sunday afternoon -- is, well, timely. Later, it reminded me of the Bible story if God, instead of seeing that his creation had become wicked and told one man that most of it would be destroyed, had, let's say, told everyone he was going destroy us for no particular reason and then just watched to see what we'd do.

The Empty Space (the name of Binary's venue in a former movie house at Rural Road and University Drive) gets you into the apocalyptic mood right away. A couple of tattered pews and makeshift shrines and altars, accented with boarded-up window openings, huddle beneath several bare lamps (the theater word for light bulbs) that flicker slowly, kind of like distant stars. The pre-show announcement ends oddly. Suddenly, we're immersed in the sound of Arcade Fire's haunting "My Body Is a Cage" while a projector shows clips not unlike the video lesson that made Leeloo cry in The Fifth Element -- except the media designers here have another 17 years of madness to pack in.

We meet Father Scott McCarty, his wife, June (they're Episcopalians), orphaned altar boy Caleb, and Sister Em, holed up in the sanctuary, scavenging food and water, and trying to keep themselves safe and secure in the building. Scott was already a guilt-ridden drunk, and current events aren't helping. Should he give up his mission and focus on protecting the few people he loves more closely? Oh, questions.

Without a doubt, the most fun character to watch, and probably to play, and perhaps also to write, is Ronnie, a mouthy opportunist played very engagingly by Lauren McKay. Her irrepressible energy and outer-borough dialect blindside the exhausted Scott. (One of my favorite exchanges goes something like this: "Do you know what I'm talkin' about?" Ronnie asks. Scott replies, "Only in the sentences that don't contain R's.") So she gets to stay, and a few others make their way in, with the obvious cheap flimsiness of the church's purported reinforcement one of the only off notes in the simple production.

Complications (beyond merely the end of all human life, which May refreshingly notes in the program is, after all, a smaller issue than the end of the world) ensue, of course, and the play's two hours and 20 minutes (including intermission) really do move right along if you take a deep breath and jump right in. This production showcases solid, sincere work, with laughs in surprising places, and the rest of the cast is a match for McKay, playing three-dimensional people who just aren't quite as entertaining and/or likable.

I don't think either the characters or the audience are quite sure how they feel at the end or what might happen next. I like that.

The verdict: This show, which I would place in the "speculative fiction of the very near future" genre, is presented with a subtle, tense realism that makes me think of all those allegedly really great recent TV series I haven't gotten around to watching. You can gather some vending machine snacks (quiet ones) and consider Earthlings as a mini-binge-watch of something of which you won't get to see the conclusion, something that's not just interesting but might also provoke thought and conversation for some time.

Earthlings continues through Sunday, April 27, at 970 East University Drive in Tempe. Purchase tickets, $8, here or at the door.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson