Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Anna Considers Mars"

Anna Considers Mars
Ruben Grijalva

Melissa Ortiz, Katie Rubin, Aaron Wilton & Christian Haines
The polar ice caps are no more.  Fiji has disappeared; San Francisco is surrounded by a gigantic seawall.  From sharks to lions, species are going extinct in the wild while decades-long droughts send desperate throngs to attack arriving planes as people look for food.  In such a world, Anna is one of millions who has applied to be among the forty Adams and Eves who will be sent to Mars to ensure the human race continues after the now-inevitable, eventual demise of the earth; and she just received a virtual message on the screen on her glasses that she is a semi-finalist for one of the “golden tickets.”  But if she leaves, what will happen to Barbara the Pacific March Mantis, to Tom, the Western Giant Marsh Bug, or to other “uncharismatic species” (i.e., ugly creatures no one cares about) that she is trying to save from their extinction?  And what about her cancer-ridden, bothersome mom, Renata, who stubbornly won’t die? 

In Ruben Gijalva’s Anna Considers Mars – a play part science fiction, part hilarious comedy with a dark streak, part family drama – Anna faces the possibility of a life-long dream to go to Mars while bumping up against a host of moral dilemmas here on earth.  Anna also sees a chance to escape a world where “everyday someone is having the worst day of their life” (i.e., often her, it seems) to a new world where maybe just the opposite might occur – especially for her.  Now in its world premiere as part of the 23rd Annual Playground Festival of New Works, Anna Considers Mars is a crazy, compelling, complicated, and comedic view of where we may be headed, given the climate change that of course is not really happening (according to our President and large parts of current society).

Wilma Bonet & Melissa Ortiz
For Anna Aguirre, this obsession to go to Mars began as a young girl when she dressed as an astronaut and started screaming in a kid melt-down to her videoing mother that “I’m going to Mars,” and “I’m taking all the kiddies and the doggies.”  With a few edits, suddenly Renata Aguirre has a video that becomes a viral, monster hit with over 200 million followers.  Ever since, the world has known Anna as “The Mars Kid” – a moniker that maybe has helped her to be chosen as a possible Mars pioneer by the Mars Exploration Program, founded by mega-millionaire and entrepreneur Shelley Lawrence.

Melissa Ortiz & Aaron Wilton
Anna has not actually met Shelley; she receives virtual messages from her through the glasses she wears – glasses that all humans now wear close to 24X7 that allow them to filter how others see them in their own glasses (much better than our current Photoshopping to clear up pimples and wrinkles).  Through her glasses, Anna receives reminders, messages, and even advice from her virtual assistant, chosen by her to be a formally dressed in white gloves Brit named Carson (played delightfully in full English dignity by Søren Oliver).  Her mother’s chosen assistant is a half-naked, pretty boy who calls her Queen (one of many roles that Aaron Wilton is called upon to portray, from creepy bugs to Anna’s lonely ex to a cute but amoral doctor to an even-more-naked, primate-wanna-be named Ishmael in dreadlocks).

Aaron Wilson, Katie Rubin & Wilma Bonet
Melissa Ortiz exceptionally captures a unique set of characteristics that define Anna’s complex, sometimes contradictory personality.  Much of the time, Anna is doggedly persistent to obtain what she wants from others. Using her nasally, half-irritating voice that has a sharp edge always ready to attack others’ resistances, she pushes potential funders to see the merits of banking the survival of a disgusting species that eats its own feces.  Similarly, she searches for her mother’s hidden vaping cigs while demanding she follow doctor’s orders or face losing all Bingo privileges – a game Renata plays constantly with her quirky, virtual friends.  But behind all that outward armor and ready to battle anyone against what she knows should be done, Anna has deep threads of insecurities and uncertainties – aspects Melissa Ortiz masterfully unveils as the story progresses. 

Anna also has her own desires and attractions, especially for a potential funder for Tom the Marsh bug – a life-long admirer named Malcolm Phillips (a genuinely likeable, good-hearted Christian Haines).  As a kid, Malcolm became enthralled with the rampant videos of “The Mars Kid” and has had ever since on his “bucket list” to one day have a date with her. 

Their meeting while she is asking for big bucks from his company for poor, hideous-looking Tom leads both having an unexpected adventure in the bedroom. But their meeting also leads Anna to a major, ethical decision and a humongous, moral dilemma  – decisions and dilemmas that involve Tom the Bug, Renalta the Mom, Darryl the Ex, Malcolm the Surprise, and Mars the Golden Ticket.

Wilma Bonet & Melissa Ortiz
Not making it easy in any of the tough decisions Anna one-by-one has to make is her mother who suffers from cancer (whom Anna in a slip refers to as “my cancerous mother”).  Their relationship is knotty at best and evidently has been so from the moment Renata ordered in vitro a girl baby with a big heart – a daughter she was sure would take care of her in her old age. But then there was the time she considered abandoning for a life in Fiji (actually a good thing she did not, given Fiji is now underwater).  For us as third-party observers of their mother-daughter struggles, Wilma Bonet’s Renata is a wonderfully entertaining combination of hilarious, endearing, eccentric, and pain-in-the-ass.

Like Aaron Wilton, Katie Rubin assumes a variety of quick-change parts during the two-hour evening (plus a fifteen-minute intermission).  As Shelley Lawrence, she is all business and a Mars-bound celeb.  As Dorothy, she is a chatty Presbyterian with a heavy Minnesota accent who got the call from God to leave her husband and go to Mars.  And those are just two of her several appearances of widely varying personalities.

San Francisco Playhouse’s Susi Damilano joins this Playground team to direct Anna Considers Mars, bringing a full-on sense of humor – deliciously warped a bit a times – and an ability to capture the exasperating but also heart-wrenching struggle between a daughter and a mother who each are torn between personal desires/needs and those of the other.  Brooke Jennings has a heyday with costume design, given the crawling creatures and equally-as-strange people – real and virtual – that show up in the course of the story.  Brittany Mellerson’s lighting takes us from desert brightness to hospital equanimity and much in between while the sound design of Ian Walker provides future-appropriate music and virtual-world sound effects to enhance the director’s and playwright’s vision.

As in most world premieres – especially one that is packed with a myriad of peeks of what the world may be like near its own, self-made extinction – there are some points where Ruben Grijalva’s script introduces incidents as well as characters and virtual entities that seem somewhat extraneous to the core storyline.  There are times one cannot help scratch one’s head with a “Huh?” but even then, there is usually a laugh coming that is well-deserved. 

Ruben Grijalva’s Anna Considers Mars covers much ground in this engagingly excellent premiere through the points made about where such current topics as virtual reality, medical advancements, and climate change may eventually lead us.  But just as important, the play reminds us that some issues – like those of family obligations versus personal dreams – are universal, timeless, and damn difficult to resolve. 

Rating: 4.5 E

Anna Considers Mars continues through June 16, 2019 as part of Playground’s 2019 New Works Festival, playing on the following times and dates: 8 p.m. June 1, 2, 6, 13, and 16; 2 p.m. June 2, 8 and 16.  Performances are at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

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