We humans love to contemplate morality. We’re like dogs chewing on a rubber ball: we lick every inch of morality’s spherical surface, gnaw on it, slobber all over it, but no matter how hard our jaws work to try and reach its center and origin, the rubber ball of morality remains frustratingly impenetrable.
Our obsession with morality originated when, eons ago, humans evolved to a point where we no longer relied on pure animal instincts to survive. We developed conscious thought, from which emerged language and the ability to communicate our thoughts to other humans. We then formed societies based on communication, and individuals within these societies began to feel – to varying degrees – a responsibility towards their fellow members of society. Some believe we feel such responsibility because we inherently acknowledge an independent, pre-existing moral code and try to serve it; others think instead that our sense of morality is entirely dependent upon the society in which we live and is therefore relative.
So, does morality exist regardless of society? Or does society determine morality? Like countless people over past millennia, Banana Bag & Bodice’s production of Space//Space, directed by Mallory Catlett and playing at The Collapsible Hole in Brooklyn until July 1st, grapples with this vast and heavy question.
Following an ominous prologue delivered by a darkly odd, terrestrial scientist (Peter Blomquist), Space//Space opens with two humans, dressed in rat-bear hybrid suits, occupying a small, spherical capsule that is floating through outer space. The capsule is theatrically open on its downstage side and directly faces the audience, so we feel as though we’re watching two hamsters exist inside a cage (albeit two very anthropomorphic and complex hamsters). Having enlisted, for some undisclosed reason, as subjects of a WPA-style work program that has packed them into this capsule headed for an unknown destination in space, the humans sip water from a canister-and-tube contraption conventionally enjoyed by rodents, fetch “emergency sandwiches” from a convenient hatch in the sphere’s ceiling, and, as the dramatic action intensifies, smash music records and belt harmonies into a microphone. As we observe the humans inhabiting their space within Space, we simultaneously witness them wrestling with the futility of their apparently permanent situation. They start to realize they have all the time in their world to do what they’ve been doing since their launch nearly three Earth-years ago, and such an excess of time in so limited a space is the perfect recipe not only for claustrophobia, but for the contemplation of morality.
An excess of time – the time left over after we have satisfied our basic needs – affords us the luxury of contemplating morality. Rarely will we ponder moral questions when our stomachs are growling or we’re freezing and shelterless. The two humans in Space//Space have all of their basic needs recurrently met in a matter of minutes, leaving them, therefore, with ample time to entertain moral and existential questions.
We discover early in the play that the two humans are brothers (played by Jason Craig, also the show’s writer, and Jessica Jelliffe), one with a penchant for twisted stand-up comedy, the other gradually and inexplicably changing into a woman. Craig and Jelliffe deliver understated yet powerful performances: their quick delivery of well-written dialogue is spiced with dramatic tension. They hold our attention throughout the production – no small feat for performers confined to such a small stage. The first brother (Craig) passes time in space by performing stand-up routines into a microphone for an audience that he believes is listening from Earth. The second brother (Jelliffe), who spent the first years of the space trek in a deep sleep and upon waking realizes he’s turning into a woman, poses existential questions to her brother regarding why they are where they are and what it means. She might as well be asking the questions we all ask of life.
The play’s main contemplation of – and confrontation with – morality enters about halfway into the story when the male-to-female brother asks her brother if he had sex with her while she was sleeping. He denies it, but after more of the play unfolds (and for newcomers in the audience: a very “Method” surprise awaits), we understand that he has in fact had sex with his brother-sister. We also see, as time passes, that the two brothers possess great love for one another – a love that is, for obvious reasons, difficult to define. The resultant situation before us, then, is comprised of several morally discordant factors: a sexual act has occurred between brothers; one of these brothers has had sex with his brother-sister without her consent; and each brother loves and cares for the other deeply.
Initially, we audience, with our understanding of morality, cringe at the thought of a brother having sex with his brother-sister while she sleeps. But then the story reaches its climax (no pun intended, I promise): the characters begin to realize that no one is recording them after all, that the microphone into which they’ve been speaking transmits no farther than their own space sphere, and that, unless they are “discovered,” no one but them will ever know what they have done or will do. Nobody is on the other end of the microphone, the brothers are abandoned to live, decay, and die alone, and we in the audience are left to wonder what role morality plays, if any, here in endless space. In a society of two, is morality the same as in a society of two billion? Or is it dependent on what the society’s two individuals decide is moral?
It’s the question the brothers ask, the play asks, and it’s the ball you’ll find yourself chewing on long after you’ve landed home from Space//Space.
The Collapsable Hole
146 Metropolitan Avenue (at Berry Street — accessible from the G train to Metropolitan Ave. or the L train to Bedford)
Tickets are $15 – 25
June 8 – July 1, 2012, Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.