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‘Speed of Light’ is a cautionary science fiction tale

The future is now at Road Less Traveled Theater, where a nifty sci-fi story plays out on an even niftier new stage, set up in a classic Buffalo lodge building that has been reborn for art. The stars aligned Friday night for the theater’s opening show, “Speed of Light,” a tale of physics, capitalism and planetary extermination all wrapped up in love, betrayal and greed.

Scott Behrend, artistic and executive director of RLT, went the “no excuses” route for his company’s first show. Drones buzzed above the 500 block of Pearl Street as theatergoers made their way in under the brand-new marquee, setting the tone for the space travel tale to come.

With only three months to vacate the theater’s old Market Arcade space and get the new theater, most recently used by the Buffalo Christian Center for Sunday services, into shape, Behrend could have gone the “Our Town” route, choosing for his first show a minimalist play set with a ladder, or a table and chairs, or something easy.

He didn’t.

Playwright Bella Poynton places all her action in a multilevel shuttered mathematics factory – perhaps inspired by her Buffalo Rust Belt roots. The design by Dyan Burlingame looms over the intimate audience space, reflecting the looming sense of doom felt by the small band of holdouts who continue to work in the largely abandoned space in a solar system far, far away.

The cast comes straight from the familiar “Star Wars” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” playbook, with no two physical specimens the same: Sara Kow-Falcone is futuristically lovely as math savant Mayra Ecazin; her pixie of an assistant Kip, played by Erica Lorenzetti, is half the height of Mayra’s love-sick suitor Frey (Steve Peterson). The boss (Greg Howze) is sharp-dressed, gray-haired and dark skinned, and the businessman who embodies corporate culture at its worst is the suitably corpulent Greg Natale. As the monk Nevik Kier, Bob Grabowski provides the hooded Ewok-element.

The familiarity of the characters, along with a fold-out “cheat sheet” included in the program, help the audience navigate this strange new world. In building it, Poynton gives nods to sci-fi standards like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Langoliers,” and the “Star Trek” federation, but its heart is more Grecian tragedy than interstellar swashbuckler.

In this universe, a swarm of voracious alien Feeders is devouring its way through inhabited planets, leaving all to waste and ruin. The hope of the small company and their planet rests on Mayra being able to solve the problem of speed of light travel.

The heart of the play beats with the camaraderie of the characters, and those moments make all the difference, like when Kip suggests she would lay down her life for her boss. He is incredulous. “You would die for me?!,” he says.

“Well. No,” responds the pragmatic Kip. “But I thought it would make you feel better to hear it.”

The cast is comfortable together and it’s clear that they are developing a good rhythm. Kow-Falcone gives her all as Mayra, numerically fluent and emotionally raw. Natale stands out with an energy to match his size, using the whole stage to make his case for business over life itself.

While “Speed of Light” doesn’t break into any startling new frontiers of science fiction, it works well as a cautionary tale and puts a fresh frame around the 21st century “Feeders” – drugs, terrorism, climate change – that threaten to devour us today.

There’s even a hidden “ode to Buffalo” when Jessica Steuber as Valki laments how her own home planet went from being a cold world to a burning desert.

“People used to laugh about our planet,” she says, “saying ‘The snow, how do you stand it?’”

But when it is gone, she muses, you miss it – its softness and the feel of the cold air.

Even in this world thousands of years and millions of miles away, the “Speed of Light” is about being human.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

Theater Review

“Speed of Light”

3 stars (Out of four)

A tale of physics, capitalism and planetary extermination all wrapped up in love, betrayal and greed.

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