The Crystalline Consciousness That Speaks Meaning Into Flesh - April 2024

Image: The Crystalline Consciousness –  Full cast and crew

As you step into the Guild Theatre to watch The Crystalline Consciousness That Speaks Meaning Into Flesh, the first thing you notice is the set in the middle of the stage. And when the play starts, you learn a surprising and central fact – the set moves!

Wow, what can I say about this set! With each segment showing a different room of the spaceship, you can appreciate that great care was taken with the details. These included actors tapping their fingernails on the set to simulate a sense of action during administrative tasks. For example, a pocket on the set was used to store an iPad that gave the ship inspections heft and believability. The actors interacted beautifully and organically with the set, including fiddling with its walls to portray their frustration and boredom during the quarantine periods in their quarters. Crystalline Consciousness has worked with the limitations of the stage in order to bring its vision of an entire spaceship to undeniable life. Simple details such as a string of lights strung across the wall in the space representative’s quarters were enough to suggest a space map of an entire galaxy. Various tools were also fastened to the walls in other quarters to convey a whole backstory of life spent on the ship, hinting at a rich lore of space travel in this universe. Not only was the use of the set creative, but the coordination of the cast and crew in shifting it between scenes was outstanding. Commendations to them! 

The overall effect of the set changes was that the locations were clearly defined, indicating which room of the spaceship we were viewing. The different colour schemes of each set section created a sense of space and difference. Depicting a whole spaceship with minimal set changes was a key part of the play’s interest and believability – and Dead End has nailed it. A little birdie tells me that the set was built in two days… all the more power to this capable team in working with tight deadlines!

Onto the show itself – there were many satisfying moments of humour in the performance. We laughed out at the scientist's eagerness to confront the alien – at his sudden, overwhelming and reckless desire to see true ‘beauty’ with his own eyes. Other standout moments were the ship captain's oversized Stanley-style mug and her fiercely pink outfit and captain’s quarters. But this humour was not just frivolous – it satirised current and pressing issues in society today. For example, the company representative’s innocent love of the company's handbook, unshared by everyone else on the ship, questioned blind obedience to bureaucracy. Or take the compelling profit drive that saw the deceased captain’s video advertisement for ship breakfast being played as an ending video roll, even after her death. Also, the scientist’s stereotypical and misinformed interest in Freudian psychosexual theory, and the ironic role reversal of him spilling his thoughts in the very diary that he records other characters' thoughts with, added further gratifying humour to inject interest into the play’s serious and complex explorations of themes.

Besides the set, a projector was used to cast an animated map of the spaceship for the audience to see. This has to be the most beautiful animation I have seen so far – kudos for taking the time and effort to create this interesting element. Together with the digital, futuristic music, the atmosphere of the spaceship was conveyed with great skill. Disturbing, uneasy moments also met points of climax and dissolution, driven by the music and sound effects.

The costumes for each character were unique and showcased their different personalities and roles, from the chain-wearing rugged shiphands, to the overall-wearing mutinying mechanic, to the company representative’s boyfriend’s colourful costume, to the ship captain's vivid pink attire and cone-shaped breast pieces.

I personally love how the ensemble acted out even the minutest details, for example when revealing the dead scientist's body. The scientist’s body had been lying in plain sight, but at the very moment his body was uncovered, the actor jerked his head, making his death immediate, real and unsettling.

One interesting characterisation for me was Olive's friend, who embodied the tension of keeping your head down to make survival as easy as possible. Her character creatively and evocatively reflected a real-life conundrum that we experience ourselves - should we speak up for what we think is right, at the cost of drawing negative attention to ourselves? And bringing with that all the complex situations that we have to navigate in order to preserve our identity and maintain a positive status in others' eyes.

Besides the characters themselves, the character relationships were complex, with various flavours being explored, from hierarchies of power to the deeply personal. For example, top-down orders from the ship captain to the crew were featured, along with competition for managerial power between the mechanic, the representative’s boyfriend and the scientist. An ambiguous “friendship” between the mutinying mechanic and Olive also explored the unhealthy dynamics of a relationship based on the withholding of information, and the power dynamics when one member is defined by their innocence.  Additionally, betrayal in partner relationships, such as between the space representative and her boyfriend in the very first scene, reflected compelling real-world experiences of misplaced trust and the concomitant vulnerability of the affected partner. 

Adding to that, psychopathic characters like the mutinying convict mechanic portrayed how despite purported good intentions, people need to be held accountable for their actions. This was conveyed by the actor’s convincing portrayal of an unlikeable character whose lack of attention to detail, and at worst, callouness to other’s deaths, caused the death of fellow crew member Olive, who repeatedly tried to clarify if they could trust him.

In the play, not a single moment felt too slowly-paced or overextended, including the monologues, a greatly-appreciated fact for a student theatre production!

In terms of themes, the choice to make the unknown alien force a benign one was a good insight that emphasised how humans are quick to attack and destroy anything they see as 'other', whether it is other groups of humans, animals, or other life forms, like plants, nature, or even aliens. The very thought of these ‘other’ groups often provoke unwarranted offensive attack, competition and war.

Even on top of the revelations of identity and relationships, the play managed to fit in further commentary about commercialisation and profit, from the branding of the ship's company, to its disinterested lack of care for the entire crew's survival. The company’s concern was focussed solely on its “valuable cargo”, making us question to what extent we sacrifice our lives and happiness in the name of profit.

The connection with the audience's hearts was further extended by the humorous depiction of being put on hold by the shipping company's helpline. The fact that the play encountered this in life-and-death circumstances highlighted the very real frustration we have when trying to seek help from companies. In so many situations, from insurance companies, to mobile phone providers, we experience this uncertainty and complication in getting our problems resolved. This could also evoke trying to get in contact with Centrelink, whose high-stakes responses directly parallel this theatrical situation.

Overall, the plot of having an unknown alien on the ship and investigating its presence did not feel repetitive at all. This interest throughout the play was maintained by the characters' relationships to each other and themselves, which changed and evolved over the course of the show and the characters’ brief (but impactful) encounters with the alien. 

The audience loved the play and gave a sustained and supportive round of applause and appreciation at the end, recognising the production’s efforts and execution of their roles.

In conclusion, the highlights of the play were the amazing amount of effort this team has put in, weathering intense stress from deadlines. From the creative playwrights to the unwavering actors, the thoughtful production team, to skilled set designer and creators, to the efficient stagehands and friendly ushers, this production was the culmination of frenetic effort and fantastic coordination.

Not just science-fiction fans would have enjoyed this – viewers who appreciate deep explorations of human experiences, critical insight into contemporary issues, complex relationship dynamics, and masterly performance, would have enjoyed this play. Dead End Collective is a theatre group to keep an eye on. I wish them all the best and look forward to their next shows!