Like most disturbing science fiction, Ashlin Halfnight’s “Artifacts of Consequence” looks like a really depressing version of next year. Directed with impressive unity of purpose by Kristjan Thor, the scattershot, frequently engaging play follows end-of-the-world survivors as they try to catalog the detritus of the human race. Set in a vast underground warehouse that recalls the final shot from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the play doesn’t quite accomplish everything it tries for, but its ambition and hyper-competent cast make the production well worth watching.
Sci-fi is always difficult to manage in front of a live audience — the high concepts require either total silliness or a huge special effects budget, neither of which are conducive to emotionally resonant drama. Halfnight has found a workaround with an inventive setting: like scribe Peter Sinn Nachtreib on last year’s Off Broadway comedy “Boom,” he provokes willful suspension of disbelief by staging his play in the very near future, shortly after the apocalypse, in the only safe room in the world.
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We never see the land outside the underground setting, but we get the impression from Dallas (Jayd McCarty) that it looks like “The Road Warrior” after a flood, with gun-toting survivors picking each other off in order to survive. Dallas and his colleague Minna (a pitch-perfect Rebecca Lingafelter) are still hard at work, even after the unspecified cataclysm that has all but ended the human race. Together, they’re keeping selected survivors safe and healthy while collecting and organizing all the things that made civilization great.
They do this by acquiring an object (Dallas usually trades food or bullets for it) and presenting it to the audience for appraisal. Depending on the audience, the artifact is either rejected and jettisoned into the body of water surrounding the compound, or accepted and filed away. A surprising number of these artifacts are playscripts, so the actors perform excerpts for us and Minna gauges our reactions.
Amusingly, the audience reactions do occasionally differ from Halfnight’s predictions. A half-assed recreation of the trial scene from “The Crucible” gets snickers (and sentences the play to sleep with the fishes), but at the perf reviewed, the aud had caught on by the time the actors sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Even though the script calls for the play to be destroyed, audience cheers saved the American musical; the cast rolled with it, rescuing “Oklahoma!” for future generations to enjoy.
Of course, Minna and Dallas are desperate to keep those future generations from gestating inside the compound, so when their de facto daughter Ari (Sara Buffamanti) lets a young man named Theo (Marty Keiser) inside, the two do everything they can to keep the prospective couple from making babies.
Some of this is funny, but some of it is simply uncomfortable, with Buffamanti trying her best to survive half a dozen embarrassing, sitcom-y scenarios. Halfnight has given her character a love of the movies “Dirty Dancing” and “Pretty Woman,” so this is harder than it sounds.
There are flaws here and there — no one will be surprised by the climax of the play’s subplot about dying compound residents, and the touching recreation of “Our Town” works because Thornton Wilder wrote a good play, not because Halfnight has made it so.
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine where the script, loosely adapted from the myth of the labyrinth, would be without Thor. The staging and the conceptual harmony between the performances and Jennifer de Fouchier’s excellent set keep the meandering narrative from losing steam, and the play’s ending remains satisfying. It’s an admirably strange experience, with a twisted optimism about human nature that keeps you interested, even when you’re not enthralled.