It’s a testament to the speed of change — and also, perhaps, to the urgency for change — that playwright Ken LaZebnik’s futuristic new play is set not 50 or 20 years from now, but just three years hence.
“Autonomy” is an epic-scale atmospheric work that addresses immigration, climate change and the implications of a future where humans share the road with more and more self-driving vehicles. It premiered Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
It’s the biggest show, scale-wise, for producer Mixed Blood Theatre and artistic director Jack Reuler.
The show, which is as much a spectacle and event as it is a play, is up for just this weekend. It’s a little messy, with stop-start scenes that bleed into each other. But it’s well worth a look.
“Autonomy” yokes theater, concern for the environment and cars into a 90-minute golf-cart promenade. Patrons are wheeled from one scene to another wearing headsets (Scott Edwards did the sound design). It’s a different way of doing theater. Like spreading a building wide instead of building it tall.
At each scene, the waiting actors, starting with Gabby (Isabella LaBlanc), come alive to perform LaZebnik’s big narrative about a talented undocumented immigrant who loses a father to a truck accident. Gabby now wants to write code for self-driving vehicles, which have the promise of reducing road fatalities.
Tragic as they are, though, car accidents are a reliable source of organ donations. A millennial waiting for a heart transplant (Tom Reed) wants to hack into vehicles to deliberately cause wrecks.
The subplots are all about the costs of human impact — both on our planet and one another. In just three years, if “Autonomy” is to be heeded, the melting permafrost will give up pathogens that create pandemics. Meanwhile, corporations led by Amazon and Tesla will own our wishes and dreams.
The stadium setting creates a sense of an epic event (Anna Robinson did the scenic and media design).
Director Reuler has a way of marrying his passions. An avid sports fan, he staged baseball-themed “Safe at Home” at CHS Field in St. Paul two years ago. “Autonomy” reveals his passion for cars. The backdrop is a collection of gorgeous classics, including a 1961 Studebaker, a 1984 Lamborghini Countach and a 1966 Ford Mustang (this last one was lent by Twin Cities stage heavy Stephen Yoakam).
Mixed Blood has assembled a huge cast for “Autonomy,” including Bruce A. Young, Raul Ramos, Taj Ruler, Ansa Akyea, Nathan Barlow and a singing Harry Waters Jr. Actor Randy Reyes also makes a compelling appearance as a cold tech executive, his first Twin Cities role since being let go from Theater Mu under mysterious circumstances in December.
Cars are the things that helped create the world we live in, including global warming. But these conveyors of people, technology and dreams may be the solution if “Autonomy” is to be believed. In getting people out of the driver’s seat, they also may help reduce greenhouse gases, reduce accidents and get us the places we want to go, all while keeping a sense of history.
Cars, and the people who love them, may be our salvation yet.