A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a young man named William Shakespeare who was a huge science fiction playwright. No, wait. That’s not right. Let’s try that again. There was once a man named Bob Carlton, who penned a science fiction play called Return to the Forbidden Planet, an homage to the classic works of William Shakespeare – and of course the classic 1956 film, Forbidden Planet. Yes, that’s more like it. And not just a play – a campy musical featuring jukebox hits from the 1950s and 1960s. That musical is currently being performed at the Greenbelt Arts Center, directed by the illustrious Jeff Lesniak and produced by Malca Gilbin.
The storyline of Return to the Forbidden Planet is loosely based on The Tempest. However, if you listen carefully, you can catch references to at least five other Shakespearean plays. There are also strong elements of the movie Forbidden Planet sprinkled throughout. When we first meet the crew of the… well, it doesn’t really have a name – it’s just a spaceship on a routine survey flight – we discover that a new Science Officer has come on board – and the captain – Captain Tempest (see what the writer did there?) – doesn’t like it very much, because she’s (shudder) female. As the two begin arguing about whether a woman can really do the job the way a man can, the craft runs into a meteor shower (amusingly accompanied by the 1950s hit “Great Balls of Fire.”) The Science Officer suggests they abandon ship and use the shuttle, but the Captain disagrees. During the confusion, the Science Officer mysteriously disappears, and the rest of the crew is forced to make an emergency landing on the uncharted planet, D’Illyria (Twelfth Night reference, anyone?) There, they meet the mad scientist Doctor Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and their robot on roller skates, Ariel. The crew learns that Prospero and Miranda have been marooned on this planet ever since Prospero’s wife sent them out into space many years earlier. Miranda has never met a man besides her father, and she quickly falls for the captain. The ship’s young cook, Cookie, quickly falls for Miranda, in a Romeo and Juliet-style subplot. As Prospero helps to repair the vessel, the love triangle continues, questions arise as to the whereabouts of the missing Science Officer and Ariel reveals what Prospero has been working on all these years.
Because Return to the Forbidden Planet is a show that attempts to combine modern themes with Shakespearean language (at least for the majority of it) and rock music (often played over important plot points,) there is a bit of inconsistency in the communication and moments that lack clarity, but these are clearly weaknesses of the libretto, not the production. All of the actors do a fine job with occasionally cumbersome dialogue and awkwardness. As Captain Tempest, Todd Hines (who resembles a younger William H. Macy,) is appropriately smarmy and moves about the stage lithely. He has an excellent singing voice, as well. His rendition of “Young Girl,” in which he attempts to reject youthful Miranda’s advances, is amusing to watch. Joey Rolandelli, who plays Cookie – the woebegone cook whose love of Miranda is unrequited – is as sympathetic as the captain is smarmy. When he sings “She’s Not There,” it almost breaks your heart.
Pamela Northrup is strong as the Science Officer and has one of the best voices in the cast. Aref Dajani takes command of the stage as Prospero. As robot Ariel, Courtney James is wonderful in her “roll” (Get it? She’s on roller skates?) Her performance of the song, “Who’s Sorry Now?” is incredibly passionate. GAC newcomer Aerika Saxe has an amazing singing voice and is a joy to watch as she dances coquettishly around the stage. Truth be told, the entire cast does a wonderful job.
The set is designed to look like the inside of a space station – specifically the inside of a space station created for a 1950’s movie – and it does that very successfully. There are controls with light-up buttons around the perimeter of the stage and stools that look like they came from a time-appropriate diner. There is also a TV screen to the rear of the ship that is utilized both to show action outside the ship and to broadcast “news reports” or exposition. It works very well. For costuming, Jeanne Binney deserves kudos. The matching Star Trek-reminiscent red uniforms are obviously hand-sewn and look amazing on the entire crew – including the band. Miranda’s ensembles capture the essence of the daughter’s frocks from Forbidden Planet. And Ariel’s costume is simply amazing. All around, the technical aspects of this production are very strong.
So, the question is, will Return to the Forbidden Planet make you laugh, cry, and become a part of you? Well, it will definitely make you laugh! It is a very silly romp through Shakespeare and the 1950s science fiction film genre. Plus, if you love rock music of that era, it’s a special treat. Bring the whole family. It will be a fun time for all!
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Return to the Forbidden Planet plays through June 9, 2018 at the Greenbelt Arts Center— 123 Centerway in historic Greenbelt MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 441-8770 or purchase them online.