Citizens of the Empire Delivers Compelling Space Opera Minus the Special FX (4 Stars)

‘Citizens of the Empire’ – Written by Kevin Mullins; Set Designer: Megan Kinneen; Costume Designer: Erica Desautels; Lighting Designer: Ian King; Sound Designer: Brad Smith. Presented by Boston Public Works at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. Boston through January 23rd.

Coming on the heels of the movie release of the latest installment of Star Wars – the most popular space opera ever – Boston Public Works dares to mount a stage version of their own take on the genre – and fares surprisingly well. Citizens of the Empire, a new work by local playwright Kevin Mullins, may lack the big budget special effects of the box office smash, but instead succeeds by combining a compelling story that reflects many of the same struggles going on in today’s society with just the right dose of camp. Citizens, despite a few kinks that will undoubtedly be worked out in later iterations, is a worthy addition to the space opera catalog.

Before the performance, I must admit that I was expecting something a lot closer to Plan 9 From Outer Space than, say, Dune (the book, not the bizarre movie version), but my fears were allayed upon entering the theater, where we are greeted by three space travelers at the rear of the stage in their plausible-looking hibernation pods, with the anticipated cheesy outer space set nowhere to be found. Megan Keenan’s set design is spare but effective, and allows the seamless transition from the insides of space ships to ballrooms without having the imagination stretch too far.

The play itself opens 800 years in the future, where we learn that the three travelers – nobleman Marcus Kent (James Hayward), android and robot union organizer Rex-T-1-5-23 (Kristen Heider) and space hooker Josephine (Alissa Cordeiro) are being sent to the prison planet to be put to death, (or in the android’s case “stomped”) for crimes against the Empire. But the android and her cohort Sid (Kathleen C. Lewis), the spunky operator of the trash-hauling escape ship (who would make a fine recruit for political computer hacker group Anonymous), have other ideas as they elude capture and plan their revolution against the oppressive ruling families and the powerful Shipping Guild.

Because this is a space opera, there are a number of other plot lines woven into the story, just like any good melodrama that happens to be set in outer space. There is the love story between Marcus and Griffin (Johnny Quinones), the son of Lady Petrov, the iron-fisted matriarch of Marcus’ home planet of Petra, the key shipping port of the interstellar trade system. A heart-broken Griffin falls into the arms of a hooker with a heart of gold in the form of Rafi (Michael John Ciszewski) when Marcus decides to spearhead the revolution, but the thread feels a little underdeveloped.

The real strength of this new work lies in the political story, which pits the wealthy establishment against the have-nots, and which echoes much of what is going on today with the Petrovs standing in for the Koch Brothers. But this is not merely a good versus evil plot, and playwright Mullins provides plenty of shading in his revolutionaries, as the rebellion takes on the same totalitarian leanings as the oppressors – like so many Latin American countries that overthrew dictatorships in the 20th century. Mullins also has a great ear for dialogue, with characters delivering gems like, “Civil disobedience with the consent of power is not disobedient, it is merely civil,” says Rex when she decides to ratchet up the violence against the oppressive regime; and Mullins shows keen historical insight when one character observes (as the revolution dissolves into mayhem), “You can believe in any political system you like, but if the trains don’t run and the sewers don’t drain, you have chaos.”

The acting is another strength in this production, particularly the women. As Princess Evelyn Martus, heiress to the sickly Emperor’s throne, Melissa deJesus combines a regal spitefulness with genuine compassion for her childhood friend Marcus, and Juliet Bowler is chillingly heartless as Lady Petrov. But it is Kristin Heider’s performance as the android Rex that was most impressive. Heider is nothing short of brilliant in her portrayal of the not-quite-human Rex, and it is no a one-note interpretation, as she takes her character from warmly enthusiastic labor organizer to bloodthirsty revolutionary as the play unfolds.  Director Lindsay Eagle does a nice job keeping the complex plot lines reasonably coherent, and the pacing – particularly in the first half – moves the plot along without leaving the audience too far behind – no easy trick considering the volume of material incorporated into the script.

Citizens of the Empire is proof that you can effectively produce an entertaining space opera without light sabers and A-Wing Fighters. All it takes is a good script, some thoughtful direction, and a skilled cast. A must-see for geeks of all ages. For more info, go to: