DETROIT — Those who have endured the ravages of online dating know this: it is difficult to make a good first impression. Such concerns are taken to a cosmic level in a new work by the Detroit-based experimental theater collective A Host of People (AHOP). Re-Release Party (The Golden Record) reimagines and stages the process surrounding the 1977 effort, led by Carl Sagan, to create a phonograph record that would communicate the story of life on Earth to extraterrestrials and future humans. The “Golden Record” (so-called because it was literally made from gold) was launched nearly 40 years ago aboard the Voyager space probes on their interstellar reconnaissance mission, which continues to this day. Foreshadowing future generations of online dating profiles, this alien outreach attempted to sum up our dynamic and complex world with messages from world leaders, greetings in many languages, pictures and sounds from across the planet, and a sampling of our music. And you thought meeting your match here on Earth was challenging?
The show, written and directed by AHOP Executive Directors Sherrine Azab (who also plays the part of Ground Control) and Jake Hooker (who also plays the part of Mr. Equipment), employs an ensemble cast of AHOP regulars alongside new faces, with six performers in the roles of Carl Sagan and his team of scientists. The show has no fourth wall to speak of, with performers (who are cast across race and gender lines) vacillating wildly between embodying their characters — Sam Moltmaker does a particularly endearing impression of Carl Sagan’s pause-laden speech pattern — and representing themselves, during behind-the-curtain existential interviews, forays into the audience, and self-conscious editorializing of their own show while in progress.
Despite the many layers of representation at play and the intensely multimedia nature of the show — almost all of which is videotaped and live-broadcast into an overhead projection area, by Hooker, who’s onstage — Re-Release Party manages some very quiet, human moments. At the end of the first section (“A-Side”), for instance, performer Emily Harpe, who plays Ann Druyan, the creative director of the Golden Record project, anchors a solemn and sincere a cappella round of “The Sound of Silence,” with the lyrics replaced by binary.
AHOP’s cast captures the essence of theater’s continued relevance in an era when special effects can much more convincingly transport us into alternate realities. Torri Lynn Ashford is spellbinding, bringing full-figured grace to the ensemble dance sequences, as well as uncanny recall to her recounting of the 100 images included on the record to represent humanity. Chris Jakob throws himself into his role as Linda Salzman-Sagan, co-producer of the original Golden Record and embittered wife of Carl Sagan, with such self-immolating passion one fears for his physical safety. Renee Willoughby is captivating as an interstellar alien DJ, especially while reading audience-submitted questions to aliens through a voice-augmenting microphone. These moments of tenderness, live action, and human drama are what continue to make theater worth attending.
Re-Release Party is not a flawless work, with some of the seams showing at its first performance on November 4 (such as the hilarious failure of the final music cue to drop, disrupting the show’s sense of closure). But even these imperfections highlight the real challenges and vulnerability of putting oneself out there and looking for connection in a cold and uncaring universe. A Host of People has done a remarkable job of layering different media and realities atop one another, but still managing to present a work that is, at its core, about humanity. We bumble along, swiping right and left, without any real awareness of the fully articulated beings hanging beyond that first impression. If and when contact is made out there in the universe, how generous will the aliens will be with this, Earth’s best attempt at a brief, appealing profile?
A Host of People’s Re-Release Party (The Golden Record) continues at the Jam Handy (2900 E Grand Blvd, Detroit) through November 19.