The Observatory and Human Nature

What is the point of science fiction? What is it that separates explosion-heavy films and books that stick with us for about a day or two and the ones that stick with us for a lifetime? What separates Transformers from Blade Runner (aside from Harrison Ford’s superiority to Shia Lebouf)?

When science fiction is at its finest, it uses futuristic technologies or strange creatures to teach us more about humanity. I spent a large chunk of my childhood watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone after school. These sitcom-length programs that spoke of aliens, curses and robots were so captivating because each story came with a sort of moral or a window into the meaning of life. Instead of “wouldn’t it be cool if people could travel through time” it was “what would the moral and spiritual implications be of time travel?” This is the difference between a Brazil and a Battlefield Earth.

A recent play by Chicago playwright, director and comedian Vincent Truman recently came through my inbox. The play is undoubtedly science fiction with advanced holographic technology and a technological government conspiracy afoot. I’m happy to say that this play, The Observatory, fulfills the second category of strong science fiction as well by making us the readers or audience members wonder how we would endure such a situation.

David Lockwood, the protagonist is an average man with a teaching job and a wife and financial difficulties. In a very Twilight Zone kind of setup, members of a division of the government in charge of a secret program have hired Lockwood to observe the holographic image of a prisoner as his new full-time job. By observing the hologram 50 hours a week, Lockwood can earn three times his salary, which includes a bonus if he happens to hear the prisoner confess to a crime.

The prisoner is a beautiful female journalist who cannot hear Lockwood, and his 50 hours per week of staring turn into an obsession, much to the chagrin of his wife. As his obsession grows and his marriage begins to splinter, David starts to become unsure of his sanity. Can the prisoner actually hear him or has he gone crazy? Is she in prison for a legitimate reason or is she being held there unfairly?

During the play, we find out (albeit from a potentially untrustworthy source) that there are over 75,000 Observers throughout the United States doing exactly what David is doing. The Observatory is unsettling because it would not be a surprise if such a technology existed and was frequently employed in our government’s surveillance techniques. How many of us would turn down triple our current salary to become an accomplice to such an invasion of privacy?

While the play seems to rush a bit past one conflict I was particularly interested in, David’s relationship with his wife, it is not short on intrigue throughout the rest. I have been given a DVD of the original run of the show from October (which I will discuss tomorrow), but there is currently a second run with a new cast that opens this coming Friday, April 15th at Chicago’s Charnel House, a funeral home that has been converted to a multi-arts center in the Logan Square neighborhood.

If you yearn for those old Twilight Zone days and want to pretend Michael Bay never graduated film school, The Observatory is a good choice for you.

The Observatory opens this Friday, April 15th at the Charnel House which is located at 3421 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago, IL 60647. Tickets are $12 if you buy them ahead of time or $15 at the door. The show runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights through April 30th (only two Sunday performances in total).

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