For most of the last two millennia, a spaceship called Arclight 27 has been carrying its passengers – 100,000 people in suspended animation – away from ravaged planet Earth and toward a distant yet habitable planet: Proxima Centauri.
But Arclight 27 is very, very late in arriving. The other ships from Earth arrived 165 years ago, and the ship’s captain, Addie Russell (Marcy McGuigan), and its pilot, Morris Emerson (Tom Ford), have grown middle-aged in this ship and their gray coveralls as they watch for signs of civilization.
So when their screens finally light up with their destination, they hoot and dance for joy. “Do you think we’ll get a parade?” Russell thrills.
Spoiler alert: They do not get a parade.
In fact, the humans who’ve been on the planet for almost 200 years already are not too glad to see them, in Greg Lam’s dark-comic sci-fi drama “Last Ship to Proxima Centauri,” at Portland Stage Company. A Clauder Competition winner, this pointed and very entertaining show receives a vivid world premiere production under the smart, dynamic direction of Kevin R. Free.
The planet’s first response to Russell’s and Emerson’s historic greeting is to put them on hold. Then they want to know about the “genetic makeup” of the ship’s “payload.” The ship is from Seattle. Its captain, its pilot, and most of its passengers are American and white. Their reputation precedes them, and not in a good way.
Sensing trouble, Russell and Emerson thaw a young Japanese-American named Henry (endearingly hapless, in Kennedy Kanagawa’s hands) to play diplomat. Cue some rule-breaking, a crash-landing, and the arrival of two underwhelmed local security officers, Tunde (Jamal James) and Paz (Octavia Chavez-Richmond, fervent and intense), and lo, the people of Arclight 27 are not getting the welcome they imagined.
Like all good science fiction, “Last Ship” provides a fantasy world of cultural inversions and alternatives, the better for us to consider our own reality.
In this case, Lam gives us an opportunity to rethink American culture by watching what happens when white Euro-Americans show up as refugees in a society that wasn’t settled by white people, a society whose historical memory of white America includes some “Frasier,” but a lot more colonialist violence. “Last Ship” channels classic sci-fi tropes to pose challenging questions about race, immigration ethics and politics, the legacy of hegemony, and the plasticity of historical narrative.
It’s also set in an astoundingly realistic spaceship with tons of fun bells and whistles. Its industrial-green control room is replete with hatches and screens (stellar scenic design by Germán Cárdenas-Alaminos), an Alexa-like onboard voice (sound by Seth Asa Sengel), and a gloriously urgent barrage of red, orange, and white blinky lights (lighting by Jamie Grant). Physical comedy, too, goes for the space-age tropes, as when the ship changes course and Henry goes flying into the opposite wall.
In his storytelling, Lam deepens these genre hijinks with his rich world-building of the new planet, which is multicultural, with meticulously colorful uniforms (terrific costume design by Haydee Zelideth), but definitely not utopian – kind of like Hawaii under the rule of Chairman Mao.
These dynamics are heightened by PSC’s ambitious multi-lingual production: much of the dialogue is in Mandarin, sometimes with and sometimes without translations supertitled on a screen, with some Spanish and Yoruba as well (translations are by Livian Yeh, Jecenia Isis Figueroa, and Kayodè Soyemi). The effect is to make us further feel like outsiders.
Lam’s script makes trenchant allusions to “ancient” American culture and history from the perspective of Tunde and Paz. Starbucks and “Seinfeld” are matters of wonder and nostalgia for these people; Tunde wrote his thesis on Tarantino films. But when by way of appeal Russell quotes our Statue of Liberty poem and Henry suggests signing “some kind of treaty,” Tunde laughs out loud at her hypocrisy. He learned all about the Mexican-American border and treaties with Indigenous tribes in school, he says; on the other hand, because of who wrote the history this time around, Tunde has never heard what happened in Tiananmen Square.
Tensions morph and shift among these characters like the red stuff in a lava lamp, constantly changing and recombining, and the ensemble registers these shifts beautifully. How quickly Ford’s congenial Emerson, robbed of a welcome, swaps his giggling triumph for wrath and racist comments, even against his own shipmate. McGuigan gives Russell a sensual and brazen entitlement; she easily pivots or dissembles to get what she’s adamant that she deserves.
As Henry, given preferential treatment by Tunde and Paz for looking “sort-of Chinese,” Kanagawa evolves affectingly from every-American ingenue to fed-up minority recognizing the injustices not just of this new society, but of the one he left.
And as Tunde, James gives a fine, dizzying performance, now comedic, now ominous. He makes Tunde’s superficial love of American culture both charmingly goofy and eerily condescending, and his swerves – between laughing TV-star impressions and rigid upholding of the local ideology – have the ease of someone absolutely secure in his dominance.
Ultimately, Lam poses more questions than answers, and they’re written to stay with us. “Last Ship to Proxima Centauri” continues the sci-fi tradition of letting the last frontier take us back, however uncomfortably, to our own home – to seeing how it might look from a distance, and from the outside.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Last-chance shows, don’t-miss films
On the theater front, you still have a little more time to catch these two almost-spring shows:
• Good Theater in Portland has a rom-com for your spring wedding cravings in “Significant Other,” through March 20, where a group of friends navigates the bachelorette parties and outfits. FMI: https://www.goodtheater.com/.
• And a classic train mystery, Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” continues its journey through March 27 at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland. FMI: https://lyricmusictheater.org/.
On the film front, last year when films were only streaming, I raved about the incredibly haunting stop-motion Chilean film “La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House),” by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, about a girl who escapes from a notorious German colony in Chile.
I’m thrilled to report that both “La Casa Lobo” and the filmmakers’ new stop-motion feature, “Los Huesos (The Bones)” will be screening in-person at Mayo Street Arts in Portland on March 26 and that the filmmakers will join live for a Zoom Q&A. “Los Huesos” is another allegory about Chilean history, in the form of “a fictitious account of the world’s first stop-motion animated film,” with fictional found footage that documents a girl’s ritual with human bones.
These filmmakers are the real deal; don’t miss it.
— Megan Grumbling