Lucan (Manny Jacinto) wakes up on a strange planet, deeply confused.
He doesn’t know why he’s crash-landed here. He doesn’t know how a sentient – and very mellifluous – AI presence named Ven (Jameela Jamil) has come to be implanted in his brain.
Neither Lucan nor Ven can remember much of anything, including why their feelings for each other seem to transcend the typical human-AI dynamic. Still, as they navigate the planet and its occupants, Ven is keeping something from him.
“Should we consider the possibility that despite our emotional attachment, I’m manipulating you for my own ends?” Ven asks.
“Nah,” Lucan says.
Such is their mutual trust, humor, and affection between solider and AI in “Marigold Breach.” In this new audio series, Lucan and Ven explore strange landscapes, meet the terraforming Homesteaders of the planet Elam, and search out their past.
Written by Joel Dane and starring a much-beloved Hollywood duo, “Marigold” was directed by Maine’s own Fred Greenhalgh for the podcast studio Realm. The first episode of this smart, richly imagined, and deftly executed show dropped on March 28, and the remaining seven will drop weekly. (Audiences can listen for free, through the ad-supported Realm app, or upgrade for ad-free listening.)
Fans of the TV hit “The Good Place” may have already felt a flutter in their hearts to read the names of this series’ stars: In Michael Schur’s hijinks afterlife comedy, Jamil and Jacinto shone in their pairing as supremely ill-matched “soulmates” Tahani – a wealthy, gorgeous socialite – and slow-thinking video-gaming goof Jason.
Now, the actors’ offbeat rapport gleams again as they partner up in the intriguingly intimate premise of “Marigold:” Ven is inside Lucan, brain and body. They’re in near-constant conversation. Her voice briefs, guides, and instructs him, sometimes calling him “Adjunct,” sometimes “Darling,” and his own internal voice responds and argues, comforts and banters, even as he’s often also talking with the people he encounters.
The two actors again portray contrasting characters. Lucan has a genial, rough-and-ready everyman style, while Ven speaks with focused, technical precision, as her sensual voice recites a stream of Lucan’s vitals or identifies an oncoming threat. But Jamil also leans with agility into Ven’s moments of humor and tenderness, and into the pleasure Ven finds in storms and streams and flora.
“You commandeered my body for sightseeing?” Lucan asks, after he wakes to find that Ven has taken him to watch a lightning storm. “Well,” she responds lightly, upbeat and happy, “you needed the rest.”
Jacinto’s Lucan meets these idiosyncrasies with knowing affection, and together, Jacinto and Jamil animate this sci-fi trope of partnership with convincing wit and warmth.
This sense of authenticity extends through the entire ensemble, which is excellent. The cast inhabits their characters with engaging specificity, including young Saadya (Amin El Gamal), who leads Lucan around sweetly sassy and amused; ebullient, wild-woman grandmother Homesteader Elishiva (Melique Berger), who suggests he stay with them; and hard-ass Hester (Zehra Fazal), who makes tapestries out of nanoparticles and whose voice softens once she shares her morning glory cigar with Lucan.
Under the show’s many distinct voices come delicious blips and chirps, glissandos and buzzes, as Ven adjusts Lucan or heeds incoming warnings. Ambient electronica and rhythms rise to pace tension, as do the underscored voices of children or thunder, and sometimes a startlingly simple melody as Ven and Lucan observe something beautiful.
Ven can not only feel everything Manny senses or recalls, but also influence his perception and response. She slows his experience of time, so they can consult while Lucan is mid-conversation with Homesteaders. She mutes his reaction to traumatic news about something they’ve left behind. And she shifts his color perception, “to compensate for sun and canopy shift,” so that he can see that a landscape he thought was full of “charred war machines, gray ash, and broken spider drones” is actually alive, “a thousand shades of green.”
“This isn’t a graveyard,” Lucan realizes, in awe. “It’s – a garden.”
Such language and symbols are frequent in the language of “Marigold.” Dane’s script is fluent in both techno-jargon (sometimes cheekily so; a “Faraday crawler” looks like “a combat transport fucking a quarry tractor”) and also a refreshing lyricism. We hear descriptions of “a pale goldenrod sky and a white disk of a sun,” longings for “the scent of lavender, the taste of beechwood honey,” and the pleasure both Ven and Lucan take in the smell of ferns and his feet splashing in a stream.
As with a lot of sci-fi, the show’s world-building choices can be seen as reflections on dynamics of our own world, and especially interesting are its ecocritical angles – a reverence for the beauty of life, a value of simple living and ecological stewardship, and even a radical approach to humans’ proper relationship with the land they settle: A Homesteader’s red skin, peeling like bark, is a result of submitting her body to the planet’s microbes, rather than resisting or adapting them to her own biology.
“We let Elam colonize us,” she says, “the way we’re colonizing her.” And Lucan fantasizes of staying here with Ven “to work the land, to belong to the land.”
I’m not sure how Lucan and Ven’s quest will play out. But I do know that I’ve become invested in their odd partnership, with all its mysteries and idiosyncrasies. Odd couple that they are, sharing the same brain and nervous system, they’re lovely together. I sure hope they can make it work.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
After just over two years dark, I’m delighted that Dramatic Repertory Company retakes the stage this weekend at Kendrick & Bloom on Presumpscot Street in Portland, with Jen Silverman’s “The Moors” (April 1-10). Riffing on the works and life of the Bronte sisters, this dark comedy tells of two spinster sisters in an old mansion on a foggy heath, and what happens when a governess and moor-hen arrive to send everything spinning into chaos. FMI: https://www.dramaticrep.org/onstage.htm.
Also opening this week is Good Theater’s next show, “Desperate Measures” (March 30-April 24). The musical comedy caper features the exploits of handsome Johnny Blood as he cavorts with a saloon girl, a sheriff, a priest, and a “nun out of habit.” FMI: https://www.goodtheater.com/.
A story of youth and the mystery of human connection mounts this week at Portland Stage Company. In “I and You” (March 30-April 17), a Walt Whitman project brings together a popular high school student and a shy, ill classmate confined to her home. FMI: www.portlandstage.org.
And musical satire comes on offer this week in South Portland, in the form of “Reefer Madness,” the 1998 hit that skewers the 1936 propaganda film of the same name. How does the show play now that late capitalism has been brought to bear on marijuana just like it has on everything else? Find out at Portland Players: https://www.portlandplayers.org/.
— Megan Grumbling