Review: Shrewd Productions’ Small Steps

Intriguing maiden voyage for local playwright’s campy sci-fi romp

(l-r) Shannon Grounds, Trey Deason, Dane Parker, Jen Brown, and Andy Shaw in Shrewd Productions’ Small Steps (Photo by Errich Petersen)

The world’s oldest cave paintings, created at least 45,000 years ago, were recently discovered by archaeologists in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Just last year, a retired policeman from the Isle of Man found a set of mid-10th century Viking jewelry, including a gold bracelet and silver brooch.

Now Austin’s Shrewd Productions appears to have discovered a lost chapter from Ray Bradbury’s 1950 sci-fi novel The Martian Chronicles, titled Small Steps, and adapted it for the stage.

The work, which is receiving its world premiere production at Hyde Park Theatre, was actually created by local playwright Briandaniel Oglesby. Like Bradbury’s classic novel, it too chronicles the exploration and settlement of Mars by Americans leaving a troubled Earth. And like Bradbury, Oglesby douses his writing with a rich mixture of humor and hard truths about isolation, loneliness, and the search for real connection in a disconnected world.

The April 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – no doubt once a bedtime staple on many nightstands – referred to The Martian Chronicles as “a poet's interpretation of future history beyond the limits of any fictional form.” The same can be said for Small Steps, which embraces camp and gay culture as its form of choice and makes for a thought-provoking and fun evening’s entertainment.

Briandaniel Oglesby douses his writing with a rich mixture of humor and hard truths about isolation, loneliness, and the search for real connection in a disconnected world.
The play revolves around Skip Powers, played by an abundantly charming and thoroughly engaging Dane Parker. Skip’s a sweet young man of low self-esteem who has come to realize that no one will ever love him. Disconnected from his family, disheartened by bad experiences on gay hookup apps, and with no interest in contributing to the planet’s gene pool, Skip volunteers to go on a one-way solo trip to Mars in pursuit of greater things. NASA, it seems, has fallen on hard times and is desperate for candidates. Assorted space officials are played by the talented and fully vested Jen Brown, Trey Deason, Shannon Grounds, and Andy Shaw, who also play over a dozen other characters (costumes by Pam Friday) who cross paths with our reluctant hero.

The first half of this two-act play takes us from Skip’s introduction to NASA to his ascension into space, with assorted flashbacks, virtual reality interactions, and bouts of highly imaginative reverie – like a heart-to-heart chat with astronaut Neil Armstrong – to provide his backstory.

The second half finds Skip going stir crazy aboard the spaceship Atlantis as it sails 55 million miles to Mars. It leads to his performance of a rather surreal sock puppet show and a delightful zero-gravity ballet achieved through slow-motion modern dance, human-assisted lifts, and the illusion of floating items (inventive props were garnered by Helen Parish). All of this is directed and choreographed by Braxton Rae, who seemed to get so much pleasure devising these moments and putting them into play that they run a bit long.

The storytelling takes place in a small performance space with a painted galaxy surrounded by glow-in-the-dark stars on the floor (courtesy of Demetri Bellini). There are large projection screens on the set’s two walls that provide clever audio and video (created by Johann Solo) that both complement and supplement Oglesby’s script. Lighting (designed by Amy Lewis) is used to transition from one location and time to another, as well as facilitate the play’s more dramatic moments.

The Martian Chronicles reflects American society immediately after World War II, when new military technology had amplified humanity's potentials to create and destroy. Small Steps is a reflection of an American society that has been living with the consequences of all that technology for decades, filtered through Oglesby and Rae’s acerbic and occasionally silly sense of humor. Still, the play ends poignantly. And so, during this production, you will likely laugh until you cry.

Shrewd Productions’ Small Steps

Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 512-956-6306
Through August 12
Running time: Approx. 2 hrs., 30 mins.

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Shrewd Productions, Small Steps, Hyde Park Theatre, Briandaniel Oglesby, Dane Parker, Jen Brown, Trey Deason, Shannon Grounds, Andy Shaw, Helen Parrish, Braxton Rae, fDemetri Bellini, Johann Solo, Amy Lewis

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