The Passage Theatre’s production of Preston Choi’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER simultaneously centers on the immensity of the universe and the intimate, everyday moments that make up our human lives. Choi’s play, presented as 43 distinct but related vignettes, reflects the human desire to search for familiarity and meaning in all that we come across. As embodied by the play’s title, that includes the human need to explore and find answers to the unknown: Is there life on Mars? And what is the meaning of our existence here on Earth relative to the rest of the universe?
While these are big questions, the production is an intimate one. The staging has no traditional set; rather, director Alison Thvedt’s production relies on an inventive use of props (designed by Amelia Mroczkowski) which have a found objects aesthetic, and a backdrop of projections used for specific vignettes. This gives the production a sparse and creative feel that enables the actors to move through the theater and convey a wide range of physical spaces as the play unfolds.
Over the course of 43 scenes, HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER roughly charts the history of human existence from prehistoric times into the present—and even looking onward into the future. While the future that the play imagines is quite bleak, particularly given how it conveys the effects of global warming, many of the scenes are charming. In fact, most of the vignettes hover between funny and contemplative. A prime example is the recurring theme of “Extinction” presentations in a fifth grade classroom. Five of the six performers in the ensemble give these presentations, each punctuated with different—but all equally hilarious—styles. But the fact these presentations focus on extinct species encapsulates what HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER explores on the whole: that tension between the large, inevitable tragedies and the small joys of life.
A talented ensemble of six delivers these vignettes. The play intentionally does not name any characters. Rather, the ensemble members are simply listed in the program as Actors 1-6 (Sarah Lo, Vic Kuligoski, LaRose Washington, Cory Hardin, Liz Cloud, and Em Haverty, respectively). Each of the actors are given individual moments to shine, but their collective power as an ensemble is also clearly a part of the play’s focus: The idea of shared humanity. The actors also come together at several moments, as when they physically embody the famous Mars rover in the play’s title. As HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER poses questions both big and small, sad and funny, the actors gamely embrace each scene and help bring out the common threads among the vignettes.
The Passage Theatre’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER runs through December 2 at Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church, 4511 North Hermitage. Tickets are $15. Visit ThePassageTheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Evelyn Landow