Theater Review: ASCENSION (Echo Theater Company)

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by Lyle Zimskind on October 10, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE ASCENSION OF L.A. THEATER

The community of small theater groups in Los Angeles has taken so many debilitating blows over the past several years — before, during and since the COVID shutdown — that it amazes how some continually clamber to re-open. This month the Echo Theater Company forges ahead with two new shows. The first of these, the world premiere of D.G. Watson’s audience-interactive, sci-fi-tinged drama Ascension, offers a strong reminder of the vitality we’ve been urgently missing during the theaters’ dark days.

Charrell Mack

A young woman identified as Rebel (Charrell Mack) awakes trapped in a doorless, windowless pod isolated in some unidentifiable location and point in time, able to communicate at first only with the voice of computer program Inanna (Elise Durant), a female descendent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. Rebel’s one other point of contact is, it turns out … us, the audience of Echo subscribers and single-show ticket holders in attendance, whom she can hear as well as we can hear her. And before long she engages us to assist in her escape. One of us will even get a phone call in our seat while we’re watching the play unfold.

Karen Sours Albisua

Ascension focuses not only on Rebel trapped in her pod and the computer personality who acts as her interlocutor, but on the artificial intelligence scientist Monica Traver (Karen Sours Albisua) and the old-guard tech entrepreneur Raithmore (Steve Hofvendahl), who have teamed up to create and market the pods and the talking software that administers them. Perhaps like the founders of Google who initially adopted, but later abandoned, “Don’t be evil” as their company’s motivating motto, Traver and Raithmore developed these systems to enable previously unimagined medical breakthroughs, but then allowed the market to adopt their technologies for more repressive purposes. A menacing unnamed Caretaker (Leandro Cano), who suggests he’s a doctor but acts like a prison guard, later appears to ensure Rebel remains hostage to the Ascension protocol established by Traver and Raithmore.

Steve Hofvendahl and Charrell Mack

The camps of the virtuous and the villains are divided by gender in Watson’s narrative, as both of the men are pretty creepy while the women characters are all more sympathetic. When first we meet him as a giant head on a screen and then again when he appears on stage, Hofvendahl’s new age-y meditation app designer turned socially unconscientious Silicon Valley zillionaire perfectly embodies the sinister nice guy persona we see in today’s public tycoons (think, perhaps, of MyPillow guy Mike Lindell with the reach of a world conqueror). Cano, too, hits all the right notes as an iron fist with a benign demeanor. The whole cast is quite good, but, as per usual, it’s the charismatic baddies we remember most.

Gloria Ines

Though Ascension was initially commissioned by the Echo to be performed online during the Covid shutdown, director Ahmed Best and projections designer Jesse Gilbert have skillfully shaped the play into an effective multimedia live production. As in a lot of sci-fi narratives, the shifts back and forth through time inherent in Ascension’s plot can get a little convoluted, but never enough to burden our attention on the compelling action within any scene. And (we think) it all cleared up in the end.

Intriguing, poignant, and fun — not to mention uniformly well-acted — this new show from the Echo in Atwater Village is hopefully a harbinger of imminent resurgence across the Los Angeles theatrical landscape. In the meantime, though … Rebel could use your help.

photos by Ahmed Best

Ascension
Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.
Tues-Thurs at 8 (dark Oct 19-21)
for tickets ($34), visit Echo

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