Space is the ultimate clean metaphor in the human consciousness. There is the vacuum, and there is matter. There is the void, and there is light, the Chaos as distinct from the Cosmos, and the black as discrete, completing opposite of the white. This dichotomous view of the Universe is irresistible to us, slowly intensifying in our minds like philosophical demi-glace after a lazy intellectual simmer, the mollifying and concentrated siren song of effortless clarity that is left behind after we have mindlessly boiled off all of the gray areas. We migrate to it like night bugs to the zapper, eventually frying in our own small-mindedness when, in the end, cheap gold inevitably shows itself pyrite. In its current production of “The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident,” FaultLine Theater confronts this nagging thorn of human existence: the inescapable complexity of the simple, the ever-shifting divisions between right and wrong, and the twisted path that might lead a captain to eat all four of his crew’s ice cream sandwiches. FOUR! In one sitting! What sort of animal does that?
Written by Barry Eitel and directed in this staging by James Nelson, Ice Cream Sandwich is narratively structured as a series of reveals that slowly lead both cast and audience level by level deeper through a maze of motivations, progressively untangling the genesis of a bizarre social transgression. As the play opens, we learn that four near-strangers are spending a year together in space. Their quarters are cramped, their food is rationed, and they have minimal contact with the outside world. Oh, and actually their “space” capsule is parked on some patch of desert in inland California. But it’s still a capsule, and freeze-dried food is just as uninspiring at sea level as it is beyond the Kármán line. This is, purportedly, a NASA-backed experiment to study the feasibility of long-distance space travel, a type of investigation that the real NASA does regularly support, but this one seems to be run by an off-brand contractor with a questionable set of quality guidelines.
The operation, “Cosmos 1,” is managed from outside the capsule by a prim, white-suited woman named May. In theory, May is an administrator who checks on the capsule-dwellers once a month, surveying their emotional states and the general progress of the mission while she drops off fresh supplies. In reality, however, she is a Nurse Ratched type of character, part toying cat and part gaslighting enforcer. Played presently with subtle and hilarious virtuosity by Becky Hirschfeld, May also has an unexpected and welcome dimension of brutal comedic sass that works like the best moments of Tina Fey. Think Flo, from the Progressive Insurance commercials, if she were a sadist and keeping you in her basement. May’s crisp white attire contrasts sharply against the black uniforms of the crew, and the entire setup strongly suggests the dynamic that evolves naturally when humans are divided into groups, even along artificial lines. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment, the guards become more guard-like and the prisoners more prisoner-like. When the curtains first part, May is convivially grilling crew member Amy on her mental health, and May’s guileful delight is palpable while Amy withers and sweats under her desire to please.
Within 90 seconds or so, Amy has spilled the space beans on the first major conflagration that has occurred within the capsule: she circuitously but purposefully reports that their captain, Tugg, has secretly eaten all of the ice cream sandwiches that were meant for the crew to share equally as a scheduled dessert. May’s ears perk up at this juicy bit of social unrest, but the trail soon runs cold, as Amy, the impeccable purehearted Sandra Dee ingénue played to perfection by Nora Doane, mostly has no idea why Tugg might have done such a thing. In the inevitable subsequent questioning of Tugg, embodied in characteristic physical animation by the talented firebrand Paul Rodrigues, May fails to learn much more. As Rodrigues stomps around, taking care of ship tasks while yelling curt answers over his shoulder, we are shown only the faintest charcoal rubbing of the complicated and tortured man beneath the ersatz spacesuit.
Superficially, Tugg ate the sandwiches because he knew that supply replenishments were due the next day anyway and he felt that he was working harder than the rest of the crew. This petty and barely credible facade fails to appease his crewmates, however, especially Jones, the ship’s forthright and ferocious blonde, brought to layered life by Adrian Deane, whose essential delivery believably expresses the vacillating duality of cold calculation and wild abandon that her character is living. Jones knows something more about the captain, and she picks the bone to its bloody marrow, recruiting both Amy and their fourth crewmate, Ripp, to pull the loose thread to its total unraveling.
As Tugg breaks down publicly, however, his imploding gravity sucks in more of Jones, Amy, and Ripp than they bargained for. A shockwave of entangled honesty blows through the capsule and sets off a chain reaction of forced admissions that traces a complicated path back to life long before the experiment. Jones was engaged. Is…engaged? Ripp is a virgin. Tugg can’t get past the moment he learned from his father that nothing good happens after 2AM. He seems unconvinced, even still, that anything good ever happens again after you’ve seen your first 2AM.
The acting throughout this section of the play especially is beyond reproach. Maybe most importantly, the first real glimpses of Daniel Chung emerge, as the goofy shell of Ripp begins to shed its shallowness. Chung matures his character efficiently and explosively along multiple axes, maneuvering from stock two-dimensional Asian stereotype to sheltered also-ran with a crush, to blisteringly angry put-upon, followed seamlessly by dissociated, effortless comedian and operator, and culminating, ultimately, in transcendent, detached Übermensch. He is, at one moment, the foil to the rest of the crew and, in the next, the reason for their very assemblage and existence. In the end, it is his plot line that proves the deepest taproot, and he rises like a Kubrickian star child above the corporeal, hedonistic morass of Jones, Tugg, and Amy, surpassing the postcoital, laissez-faire bohemia into which they have chosen to settle instead.
Underneath this controlling story arc, several other narratives also quietly but consistently establish themselves, subtle leitmotifs that are there if you listen hard enough. The most fascinating of these is Amy’s tune. Of the crewmates, she is the only one with a clear, traditional reason for having signed up: she wants to be an astronaut someday. Doane layers unadulterated earnestness on this simple base but then mixes in an equal part of relentless ambition, a combination that is as toxic as it is classic and which so often leads to the paradoxical outcome of the most altruistic among us being capable of the most sordid acts. Amy has a known goal, and this makes her corruptible, susceptible to being leveraged by the other characters. Like all the Tracy Flicks of the world, so invested in high-school government elections, nothing is as dangerous or as in danger as a person who openly cares about something. In an indirect recognition of this power structure, Amy is the only capsule inhabitant who is called by her first name, a childish demotion that belies her very adult desires and capabilities and that is made possible only by her unconcealed sincerity. Larger and more direct ramifications are soon to follow, as well, and the play makes expert use of the tightly coiled spring that is Amy to power much of its motion.
With so much human action whirring in the foreground, it would be tempting but criminal to overlook the astounding backdrop upon which Ice Cream Sandwich is set. Carlos Aceves (scenic design), Wes Crain (costume design), Maxx Kurzunski (lighting design), Noah Kramer (props design), and James Goode (sound design) have combined to produce what is almost certainly the most transporting and fantastic FaultLine theater environment to date. The slim, dull black box of the venue is believably transmogrified into an experimental space habitat, shiny and immaculate but yet possessing enough intentional cheap detail to thoroughly convey the low-rent nature of the mission. Lights blink (special applause to the Chamber of Emotions), gadgets beep, airlocks function, and trapdoor hatches appear when needed, fluidly converting the physically small set into a sprawling warren of space tubes and wonder inside the shared imagination of cast and audience, a tangible ship of the cosmos in which there is almost no disbelief to need suspending. And, as always, an occasional herbal cigarette wafts tendrils of instant atmosphere around the place from time to time.
There is not much to quibble with in Ice Cream Sandwich, either in terms of content or execution. One thing that is clear, though, is that FaultLine’s directing and acting is at its most natural when the pot is boiling, when scenes call for anger, contention, misery, jubilance, comedy, dynamism, or any other strongly positive expression. There is a role for communication in the negative space, too, and it would be nice to see this approach more fully developed in the future. So much of real everyday interaction and meaning occurs in what is not occurring, what gets left unsaid or undone, the nuances of near-imperceptible facial expressions. This type of communication is very hard to recapitulate in theater, as a loud voice is by definition easier to hear than a silent one, but that doesn’t make it an unworthy goal to pursue.
Amidst the comedy and drama of this production, it can be easy to lose track of the small tells that reveal the deeply introspective nature of the work. Theater itself is a way to learn about life through a mutually agreed-upon constructed mental space, and the idea of a terrestrial test mission for space travel shares this same essential nature. The environment in both is false in some critical way, but many important outcomes are inarguably real. Since all experience occurs only inside the head, it doesn’t matter what is outside the walls of your ship, only what changes within you. Harnessing this important reality, FaultLine has deftly created an experience in which the fictitious goings-on aboard a fake spaceship in an imaginary testing program located in a make-believe desert purportedly found within the void-like confines of a small black box theater can still transport you lightyears into an undeniably real exploration of the true black and white that exists in all of us, a fake spaceship on a very real voyage.
“The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident,” like any ice cream sandwich in the month of August, won’t be around for very long. Catch it through August 27th, playing at PianoFight in the Tenderloin (get tickets here):
- Thursday, 8/11 @ 7:30pm
- Friday, 8/12 @ 7:30pm
- Saturday, 8/13 @ 7:30pm
- Thursday, 8/18 @ 7:30pm
- Friday, 8/19 @ 7:30pm
- Saturday, 8/20 @ 7:30pm
- Sunday, 8/21 @ 5:00pm
- Thursday, 8/25 @ 7:30pm
- Friday, 8/26 @ 7:30pm
- Saturday, 8/27 @ 7:30pm