Review: "The Employees" Stages Some Spectacular Science Fiction

The Employees

By Olga Ravn

Translated by Martin Aitken

Adapted by Jaclyn Biskup and Lauren Holmes

Directed by Jaclyn Biskup

Presented by The Mill and Theaterlab at Theaterlab

357 W 36th St, 3rd Floor, Manhattan, NYC

June 13-30, 2024

Aurea Tomeski. Photo by Pelenguino Photo
Some strains of science fiction have long used their imagined worlds, beings, and objects to explore social and metaphysical questions. The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, The Mill's world premiere stage adaptation of Danish writer Olga Ravn's 2020 novel, makes one of its primary concerns clear in its title. Here, interstellar exploration is not a romantic adventure but a job, and one which permits even less of a "private" self than globalized neoliberalism allows for us current-day, Earth-bound laborers. But rather than an endpoint, this fascinating, formidable production's critique of the dehumanizations of the workplace acts more like a hub, the center of a web of compelling questions around identity, memory, embodiment, and mortality.

Ravn's novel presents a non-linear assemblage of interviews with the eponymous employees, crew members of the Six Thousand Ship, by representatives of their employers, a corporation referred to only as "the organization." The play preserves this structure, with its quartet of actors each inhabiting multiple roles (the very disruption of the boundaries of identity which this produces functions as another manifestation of the show's themes). The crew is composed of both humans and humanoids, the latter created beings who receive regular updates, far outlive their human coworkers, and can back up their consciousness in the manner of saving a file to the cloud. This crew has retrieved multiple unknowably alien (but to some, intensely attractive) "objects" from the planet which the Six Thousand Ship currently orbits (the word objects, incidentally, like "the organization" and "the program," always sounds like it is being spoken as a proper noun). The play trusts the audience enough to eschew exposition and allow the details of its world, however elliptical, to emerge organically through the characters' testimonies. As the play progresses, the humanoids develop a class–or perhaps "category"–consciousness, which inevitably engenders conflict. Capitalism, it appears, leads to resistance and violence even when those involved are not strictly human.
Molly Leland, Aurea Tomeski (center-front), Paul Budraitis (center-rear), and Chrstopher McLinden.Photo by Pelenguino Photo. 
At the same time, one character seems to suggest that violence is a sign of creativity and perhaps of being "human." Many sci-fi narratives use artificially created consciousnesses to ask what being "human" means–perhaps this repeated interrogation gestures to an anxiety that "being human" is not quite as unique as we have mythologized it to be. The Employees intriguingly broadens this inquiry through the "objects." The objects are radically Other, to the point that it is unclear, in an echo of but to a much greater degree than the humanoids, if they are living or not. The remark of one crew member that "It's a dangerous thing for an organization not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living" brings to mind how humans re-conceptualize living non-human nature as, say, "resources," in order to better commodify and exploit it. In regard to certain varieties of non-human nature, our refusal to grant personhood to a greater range of living organisms facilitates our instrumentalization of nature - and likely of categories of the human as well (consider how viewing someone as not entirely human allows for reducing or removing personhood and so justifies exploitation). Relatedly, questions of what it means for ideas of self and meaning to have been "made" only to be productive clearly apply beyond the humanoids who ask them. And we have not even touched on the production's engagement with questions of collectivity versus individuality, whether any given consciousness is actually unique, the possibility of cross-category love, and the impulse to be remembered. The humanoid desire to preserve a record of what has happened evokes both being remembered as a kind of proof of having existed, a recognition by the Other of a self, and, from another direction, its role in the individual construction of self and identity. A humanoid missing an upload is akin to missing or losing a save in a video game: if that can make it as if hours had simply never happened, now what if rather than a PS5, we were talking about your brain?
(Rear) Molly Leland, Paul Budraitis, Aurea Tomeski, and (front) Chrstopher McLinden. Photo by Pelenguino Photo. 
On the one hand, The Employees fosters a sense of intimacy by seating spectators in the same u-shaped arrangement of chairs as the actors, who sport white coveralls in a white room with white seats (occasionally utterly transformed via vivid lighting design). On the other hand, the performance creates an expansive feel in the compact Gallery space at Theaterlab. In the environment that the show creates, small gestures take on notable importance–a hand on a shoulder, an individual's name said aloud; and some passages exude a wonderful tactility that is all the more powerful in contrast to the sterility and disconnection experienced by the characters and evoked by the mise-en-scène. The cast members–Paul Budraitis, Molly Leland, Christopher McLinden, and Aurea Tomeski–captivate throughout, with Leland particularly skillful in imparting a subtle uncanniness as a humanoid through a certain tilt of the head or quality of a smile; and their terrific work is capped by a final moment that is both moving and strikingly staged. You won't receive a salary for seeing The Employees, but the experience is payment enough.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: "How To Eat an Orange" Cuts into the Life of an Argentine Artist and Activist

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival