STAR TRACKS & VOYAGERS: SCI-FI COMMANDS THE NJ REP STAGE

Daven Ralston and Joseph Carlson inhabit the recent past and the distant future in New Jersey Repertory Company’s production of VOYAGER ONE, the Jared Michael Delaney play that makes its world premiere this weekend in Long Branch. (Andrea Phox Photography)

Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), June 20, 2019

From the small smart-screens of the hand-held mobile device nation, to the grandest IMAX domes of the superhero mega-plex multiverse, the triumph of Sci-Fi over the popular culture is ultimate and undisputed. It’s a fever-dream scenario hammered home all the more by every news report of driverless cars, drone-based deliveries, apocalyptic forecasts, artisanally designed humans, realiTV presidents, and revised UFO protocols — although, strangely enough, there’s one cultural corner that remains largely untouched by its cold and probing light.

According to Jared Michael Delaney, “You don’t see science fiction on stage, hardly ever” — and while the actor-playwright allows that shows like the musical Be More Chill or the Pulitzer Prize finalist Marjorie Prime have incorporated elements like pill-sized supercomputers and android-based immortality into their studies of all-too human relationships, “whether it’s out of fear of special effects or whatever, a lot of producers shy away completely from considering it.”

“I’m a sci-fi fan myself…to me, it’s at its best when it’s tackling some real philosophical questions,” explains Delaney. With that in mind, the Philadelphia-based actor and playwright got busy employing one of the sci-fi genre’s specialty devices as a means to re-examine one of his signature themes — namely, the search for our tribal identity, whether it be through sports-team fandom, nation of origin, or membership in our curious but ever-endangered species.

Going up in previews tonight, June 20 — and opening officially on Saturday, June 22 — Voyager One represents the latest in an ever-expanding line of plays to make their world premiere on the downtown Broadway stage of New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. And, while it’s the first of Delaney’s full-length scripts to be produced by the company, it stands as a home-away-from-homecoming of sorts for the performer who’s co-starred in several NJ Rep mainstage offerings, most recently alongside fellow Philly phenom (and frequent NJ Rep flyer) Ames Adamson in the 2018 two-hander The Calling.

Like Delaney’s local debut (in 2016’s Mad Love), The Calling was directed by one of NJ Rep’s most industrious and inspired creative partners, Evan Bergman — and it’s Bergman who returns to the NJ Rep director’s chair for the fourteenth (fifteenth? sixteenth?) time, with a drama that unfolds within two distinctly different points on the timeline — the not-so-distant past (where a team of researchers labors on the Voyager 1 space exploration project of the play’s title), and an imponderably distant future (where “a discovery upends everything that humanity has been led to believe”).

Joseph Carlson and Daven Ralston appear as researchers charged with representing Planet Earth in sound, in NJ Rep’s VOYAGER ONE (Andrea Phox Photography)

“I wouldn’t want anybody to be doing this project but Evan,” says Delaney of the man who also directed him in a Nantucket production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. While the playwright (who acted in his first full length play in 2013, a “farce about three Irish soccer fans” entitled The Hand of Gaul) won’t be suiting up to play any of his creations this time, his rapport with his frequent artistic collaborator is such that “We’ve become close friends…we’re able to communicate with each other in a clear and productive way.”

As with many of the most effective excursions into science fiction’s finer frontiers, Voyager One is grounded in the terra-firma of science fact and history — in this case, the 1977 launch of the space probe (and its twin, Voyager 2) designed to collect and transmit data and photos from the outermost planets of our solar system — and to take its mission a giant step beyond.

Readers might recall the Voyager twins for their greetings aimed at any alien civilization that may happen across their path; their stored images of the planet Earth and its diverse life forms; their personal message from then-President Jimmy Carter. And while the stage entertainment Voyager One is not a musical (nor even a “play with music”), the tunes have a crucial part to play within its parallel time settings — in a way that qualifies for the ultimate gold record.

That record — an actual gold-plated, stylus-played disc featuring recorded sounds of our world, including snippets of various musical forms (Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was rock and roll’s sole ambassador to make the trip), is at the heart of the play’s scenes set in 1976. Real-life married actors Joseph Carlson and Daven Ralston star as those 20th century researchers, as well as their far-flung future counterparts.

“Music is very important to the overall structure here,” says Delaney of the play whose single act is divided into ten scenes that alternate between past and future. “As we advance through the plot, we see how the timelines are connected…and why.”

There’s another character featured, if not exactly visible, in those future scenes — an artificial-intelligence aide (described by the playwright as “the umpteenth descendant of Siri and Alexa”) voiced by NJ Rep charter member Mare Akana, known throughout the local arts community as a multi-tasker whose myriad talents include painting, sculpting, music, hula dancing, and the coordination of the annual Art in the Park event in Long Branch’s West End.

“Mare plays a ‘not-evil’ version of HAL from 2001,” observes Delaney, himself a renaissance guy who founded Philly’s Revolution Shakespeare Company — and who currently develops new original works for the stage through his affiliation with NYC’s Athena Theatre. “That character has a journey to make here as well…and Mare has a wonderful, husky voice that just brings her to life.”

As the playwright explains, the inspiration for Voyager One came from a couple of recently read articles — one an update on the original V-1 spacecraft, which several years ago officially left our solar system to become the first known man-made object to enter interstellar space.

“It’s thought that it will be dead by 2025, when its power supply runs out — and unless it gets intercepted or collides with something, it won’t approach another star for 40,000 years,” says Delaney. “I was struck by the enormity of these things, and also with another article, written by Chuck Closterman, in which he says that when we look back on something major…say, rock and roll music…we associate it primarily with one name; say The Beatles, Elvis, The Stones, Dylan, Aretha…or in this case Chuck Berry.”

Rock music also figures into a new Delaney script scheduled to make its premiere at the upcoming Jersey Fringe Festival in Hammonton — a one-woman show (written expressly for an actress friend who requested “a solo piece about her life experiences”) that “speaks to the hyper-devoted aspect of rock and roll fandom,” as well as “the puzzle that is the identity of being a Canadian in America.” Check the website jaredmichaeldelaney.com for updates on the staging that plays on August 3, 4, and 5.

And, of course, visit njrep.org (or call 732-229-3166) for full schedule details and reservations for Voyager One, which continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through July 21. Adult tickets are $45 for previews (8 pm on June 20 and 21; 3 pm on June 22); $60 for the June 22 opening night performance (8 pm) with reception,; $50 for the June 23 Sunday matinee (2 pm) and all performances thereafter through July 21.