On hearing the title of Claire Kiechel’s haunted and haunting new play, “Pilgrims,” images of English colonists in ruffs and buckled shoes, all sailing to the New World aboard the Mayflower, might immediately spring to mind.
When: Through July 30
Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $30 – $40
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Forget that image. In fact, fast forward more than five centuries to a time when interplanetary colonization is already well underway, when avatars might easily be mistaken for genuine humans, and when hotel-style starships carry new settlers to the most distant outposts. Then meet two travelers on one of those starships (which bear such fanciful names as Fortuna, Providence, Kismet, Prospect and Horizon), and discover that their reasons for taking this journey are more fraught and enigmatic than expected, and that they are both in search of forgiveness and redemption rather than adventure.
I confess to being no great fan of science fiction. But for all its subtly futuristic trappings, “Pilgrims” — now in a beautifully realized world premiere at The Gift Theatre (a company with a notable gift for showcasing engrossing new plays) — the voyage to a newly discovered planet is really just a metaphor for an escape from the past. And it animates Kiechel’s story ideally.
The electronic billboard just inside the theater lists the flight departures. This particular starship is named Destiny. And among its passengers are the Soldier (Ed Flynn), an agitated and emotionally tense man of 27, who specifically booked a private cabin, and the Girl (Janelle Villas), an energetic, talkative young woman who claims to be 16, and who is unexpectedly assigned to share his room at the last minute.
The Soldier is furious about losing his privacy. And he tries to demand a change by way of Jasmine (Brittany Burch), the “personal assistant” assigned to their room. A calm, cool, annoyingly composed avatar/robot with a mechanical mentality and speech pattern, she is dressed in an outfit (applause for costume designer Izumi Inaba) that might have been worn by a flight attendant in the 1960s.
Jasmine makes it clear that the accommodations cannot be altered, and when a possible bacterial infection is discovered elsewhere on the spacecraft, the two passengers are quarantined in the room. It is going to be a rocky emotional ride for the ensuing 100 days or more as The Girl tries to make a connection with The Soldier — enticing him into play-acting and other games, and using all her feminine wiles of seduction, yet continually meeting with rejection that begs understanding.
A spoiler alert is in order at this point.
Asked about why she is taking this voyage, The Girl speaks of fleeing a bad relationship with her father — one that might or might not have been incestuous. The Soldier, too, has a dark secret — one that gives him nightmares. It has to do with a massacre he was involved in during a war.
The actors, under the nuanced co-direction of Michael Patrick Thornton and Jessica Thebus, are extraordinary. With her buoyant, playful spirit and sensual balletic grace, Villas, the unstoppable engine of the play, easily suggests an indomitable life force. She is a big talent, and wholly beguiling. The always brilliant Burch is nothing short of uncanny as Jasmine, capturing the vocal and physical artificiality of her character while exuding just the right (very funny) sexual charge. And Flynn embodies the darkness and torment of The Soldier with moments of rage briefly broken by sudden shows of ardor. (Arnel Sancianco’s set — a cabin that suggests a generic hotel room on Earth — is raised well above the storefront theater’s floor and allows for ideal sightlines in this always challenging space.)
Kiechel, a writer for “The OA,” Netflix’s sci-fi web series, is an exceptionally fine story-spinner who can move seamlessly from mystery, to satire, to tragedy. You are advised to book a ticket for this journey. I am eagerly looking forward to the next one, too.