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Comedy, Science-Fiction, and Politics collide in Know’s “The Absentee”


Review by Christiana Molldrem Harkulich of “The Absentee”: Know Theatre

What would you do if you were alone in outer space for an extended period of time with nothing to do? Know Theatre’s world premiere of Julia Doolittle’s “The Absentee” takes on that question and more. The year is 2088 and the Operator of a beacon, a toll station for space traffic, is stuck without anything to do and anyone to communicate with because an accident in space has delayed all traffic. Kate Bergstrom deftly directs this 90-minute science-fiction play, which is by turns hilarious and full of pathos.

AJ Baldwin as Beacon and Jordan Trovillion as Operator in “The Absentee”

Doolittle’s Operator (Jordan Trovillion) is a working-class queer woman in space. There is a quotidian quality to the play; space is no longer the great frontier or even the wild west. Space is a highway with an accident that has shut down the road. Despite being set in the future, “The Absentee” is populated by characters who are close and familiar. Trovillion’s Operator is sardonic, funny, and complicated, and carries the play. Trovillion makes you care about this broken, smart-mouthed person who has chosen to live by herself in space, rather than deal with her issues on earth. 

While the Operator is waiting, she receives a phone call that will be all too familiar in the coming months, a volunteer campaign support call from Glenn with Huerta for America (Nathan Tubbs), because 2088 is an election year and you can vote absentee from space. Before you groan about a play about politics, there is something wonderful about Doolittle’s choice to remove our political situation from the immediate divisions of our current society. It gives the play’s message and ideas room to breath. This is not a satire but a comedic reflection on the power of making your voice heard while simultaneously asking if you scream in space can anyone hear you.

Tubbs’ Glenn is full of earnest hope, in contrast to the Operator who he calls Ripley (a sly reference to other sci-fi narratives of women alone in space), since Beacon operators don’t give out their real name in compliance with the Space Force code. In contrast to Glenn’s optimism, the Operator also has interactions with the beacon’s by-the-book Artificial Intelligence (played with excellent comic timing by AJ Baldwin), and the pragmatic Lieutenant Zala of the government clean-up ship (a serious and believable Hannah Jones). The staging (including choreography by Darnelle Pierre Benjamin) is very smart throughout, letting us see how important connection is when you are alone.

The design team does a wonderful job creating the world of the Beacon. Scenic and Lighting Designer Andrew Hungerford (who is also Know Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director) creates a stunning moment of the nearest star rising through the beacon’s windows that instantly set the tone for the play (warning: this show uses strobe light). Doug Borntrager’s sound and video design completes the ambient environment, and provides several great jokes. Of particular note is the hilarious song that the Operator creates from a recording of her cursing. The costumes, by Noelle Wedig-Johnston, are pitch-perfect — especially Glenn’s volunteer political campaigner outfit.

At heart, every science fiction story from “Alien” to “Westworld” is really about what makes us human, and “The Absentee” is no different. Glenn has a speech about humanity and democracy towards the end of the play that is reminiscent of the best parts of “Independence Day” and “The West Wing”, and brought me (and the folks sitting on either side of me) to tears.  Through the play’s twists and turns, and very high stakes (things can so quickly go wrong for life in space!), “The Absentee” asks the audience to think about how political choices really do make an impact on the larger world, and why your vote — even from space — can matter. To that end, Know has partnered with both The League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati area and the Cincinnati house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and they’ll be hosting a few voter registration drives for the community and audience as part of the run of the show.

This show will give you lots to think about as we all go together into the coming election year, don’t miss it! “The Absentee” runs now til October 5th at The Know Theatre of Cincinnati. Tickets can be purchased here