Sci-fi thrillers hitting stage

By Megan Ferringer

It’s the year 2156-a volatile time when humans have exhausted most of Earth’s natural resources-and a crew of seven is forced to search elsewhere in the universe for a rare element that just might bring Earth back to livable conditions. Once the crewmembers set foot on an uncharted asteroid, it’s clear they’re not alone, and are instead in the presence of all things ghoulish and extraterrestrial.

It’s not quite a scene from a classic sci-fi film like Alien or Dawn of the Dead, but it has certainly pulled influences. But rather than being presented on the big screen with a multi-million dollar budget in special effects, this thriller is being brought to a stage in front of a live audience.

Opening May 9 at the Playground Theater, “THEMS” is an improvised show produced in a cinematic style around a loose story arc. The characters are played as a study of human nature, each struggling with their own fears, faults and desires as a deadly infection breaks out on ship, said Ross Foti, co-creator of the show.

“The show itself pulls liberally from a lot of different inspirations. So we took ideas from Alien or The Thing, this idea that there is a crew stuck in space,” Foti said. “And like most people in the movies are, there’s a lot of paranoia, blaming and out-of-control situations. But mostly it focuses on human interaction-how people break down in situations and turn on each other or bring out the best of the human condition.”

Foti and his co-creator John Eiberger first came up with the idea when they realized how few sci-fi-themed productions existed in the world of theater and that the calling for such a thing seemed to be in high demand. Science-fiction junkies themselves, a year ago they decided to experiment with their improv group, marrying together their love for survival horror and aliens.

Put on by a cast of seven archetypal characters and a set of extravagant props and costumes, the idea that Foti and Eiberger conjured up was initially complicated to put on stage. Many of the ideas they’ve come across range from the expensive and elaborate, sending Eiberger on a mission to create his own props from junk, finishing with a product of radioactive containers and flamethrowers, Eiberger said.  Foti has deemed Eiberger as an aficionado of creation after he built a detailed spaceship that is being used in the beginning of the show and intricate fiberglass space suits and helmets.

“When creating this show, I basically just looked to what I know because I am a nerd,” Eiberger said. “There are these detailed props, video projections and latex makeup for the infected, and pretty much what we are aiming for with all of this is to pull off a movie live in front of an audience.”

In order to prepare for the film, director Rebecca Lagguth had each of the actors analyze and dissect the science-fiction formula by watching and researching classic films. From there, they were able to pull similar archetypes and situations that an audience will immediately recognize.

But what sets “THEMS” apart from any other sci-fi production is the dark humor and intense cast connections apparent throughout, Lagguth said. Creating a cohesive and multi-dimensional improv cast was crucial, requiring Lagguth to initiate bonding activities in order to bring the actors on a level on stage that will bring each of them to frightening breakdown points. From there, she said the unusual humor unveils itself naturally-the heightened drama can become intensive and serious but it’s also hysterically funny at the same time, Lagguth said.

“It’s like Shaun of the Dead sort of humor,” Lagguth said.” They have such respect for the material that in the end what they were really doing is paying homage. It’s not a spoof. We really love this stuff and take it to heart.”

Foti said it’s this passive take on comedy that sets it apart from other shows currently playing in Chicago, meaning that their cast members are directed not to go for the low-hanging fruit of the funny. There are no broad jokes or bad puns, and instead the laughter comes from the sustained tension and how seriously the crew takes their unusual predicament.

“You can really see this love for science-fiction coming forward from the cast and creators,” Foti said. “Everyone knows classic sci-fi material inside and out, we’ve studied it and researched it. We spend our rehearsals  watching the movies, breaking them down and seeing what we can pull. With that we’re all hoping that we’ll bring in the attention of both sci-fi aficionados and skeptics.”

Tickets can be purchased at Playground Theater for $20.