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Review: MadLab Closes 2018-2019 Season With Science Fiction Satire Happy Pills

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Review: MadLab Closes 2018-2019 Season With Science Fiction Satire Happy PillsLeft to right: Audrey Marie Craddick as Fern, Matt Schlichting as Jon in MadLab Theatre's production of Happy Pills by Alyssa Cokinis. Photo by Steve Malone Photography
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MadLab opens their premiere of Alyssa Cokinis’ science fiction satire Happy Pills in a production directed by Dallas Ray this weekend.

Happy Pills takes place in a post-apocalyptic Bethesda, MD, where Fern (Audrey Marie Craddick) finds even nuclear blasts and suburban DC’s conversion into a conflagration of walled cities doesn’t change her problems very much. The one glimpse we get from before the blast shows Fern stealing pills from Rose (Kristi Miller Nunn), her designer-drug-scientist Mom, and running away. The rest of the play flashes back and forth in time.

One stream shows Fern lost in the wasteland not long after the blast, with heavy implications society was already on its way to crumbling before the bombs fell, taken under the wing of survivalist Kerouac (Abigail Worden), their burgeoning romance tested by the elements. These obstacles include mutating plants and scarce game for food, marauding packs of radiation-burned cannibals, represented by Kisa (Colleen Kochensparger), and Fern’s withdrawal leading to tentative sobriety.

Left to right: Abigail Worden as Kerouac, Audrey Marie Craddick as Fern

The other finds her back at home with Rose, back on (more than the recommended dose of) the society-mandated pills, and struggling to patch things up with her ex, Jon (Matt Schlichting). Jon’s mother (played in voice during broadcasts by Jessica Ankrom) is the president of the Integrated Borders Union. She and her two enforcers (Keith Jackson and Sean Tayler) provide exposition on the Brave New World-riffing drugs forced upon every citizen, with on-the-nose names Antipathy Pills, Empathy Pills, Happy Pills, and the just-released Love Pills.

Of the two, the sequences in the wasteland crackle with life. Craddick leans into the rhythm and opens up through her chemistry with Worden. Worden summons a rare combination of warmth, wistfulness, and hardened wonder, that recalls the best of her namesake and, in these short sketches, presents one of the few flesh-and-blood people in Happy Pills. The bright spark of Kochensparger’s Kisa enlivens the muted, monochromatic mood of much of the play with a jolt of scenery-chewing fun.

Fissures in the material’s foundation keep the scenes back in the city from ever standing up straight for more than scattered moments of beauty. Half-baked world building hobbles the audience buying the setting.  No one with a hundred (at least) years of pharmaceutical marketing history to draw from would ever name pills with such dull and on-the-nose names. Don’t they want a snappier name than “Empathy Pill”?

The lack of any nicknames also betrays a lack of consideration for the world; characters refer to the Integrated Borders Union only as that or the IBU. Not only is the name bad, every time a person spells out the full, official name of where they live, the reference clangs with a grating sensation. Tayler, Jackson, Ankrom, and Schlichting do their best to stir in a charming self-awareness and humor to these tropes we’ve seen so many times but they face a Sisyphean task.

On a more human level, the play falters with its hints of “the emotions were inside you all along” (shades of Wizard of Oz), and its surface-skimming of the deeper issues of how a totalitarian government manipulates a docile public and the tendency of humans to want more.

For a play ostensibly about finding authentic feelings and connecting with others, the characters explain exactly what they’re thinking and feeling at one another only for the other person to volley back a similar mini-monologue over and over. Worse, the 90-minute one act is broken up into such short scenes, Happy Pills gets no real momentum; more like a television pilot script than a stage play.

Science fiction is one of the most difficult genres to tackle on stage. MadLab should be commended for a season of important subjects in tricky, ambitious plays. But there’s nothing in Happy Pills the average audience hasn’t seen before and better.

Happy Pills runs through March 23 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net/happy-pills.html.

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