The Mars Project by Will O’Mahony and WAAPA 3rd year acting
Two years ago, WAAPA Program Director Andrew Lewis approached playwright Will O’Mahony to create a new work for the then 1st year acting students, to be produced in their 3rd and final year of the program. Fast forward to 2015 and the seventeen 3rd-year WAAPA students and O’Mahony have a finished product, The Mars Project, of which they can all be very proud.
Set in a near future, aspiring astronauts (or cosmonauts, depending on where you’re from, says one of the characters) are vying in a televised contest/reality show to be the first person to go to Mars and stay there. We follow one particular candidate, Wren (Elle Harris) as she does whatever it takes to make sure she makes the cut; she goes to a PR wiz, curiously named Sparkle (Hoa Xuande) to make her watchable.
Meanwhile, we meet a self-help guru named Robin (Dacre Montgomery) who pumps out slogans with an Orwellian flair (if Orwell had been a motivational speaker) to a brainwashed cast of groupies. We also meet a group of Mars colony contestants and a group of people with autism, which brings me to the story at the heart of The Mars Project.
Wren has a twin brother, Sam (Luke Fewster), who is autistic. He is mute and spends most of his time hula-hooping his way through life, and though Wren appears to care for him, she sees him as an obstacle to her success. After weighing the consequences and consulting with Sparkle, she makes an awful, chilling decision regarding her brother’s life that demonstrates how ruthlessly obsessed she has become with winning.
Writing a play that showcases 17 actors is a huge task that O’Mahony has met with a great deal of success. There are some grey areas that may or may not require further explanation, depending on how much you need your narrative spelled out for you.
We are thrown into a world that is familiar, but opening scenes arise without context; fortunately, O’Mahony gives us a chance to catch up under each new given circumstance, and he is aided in this by the superb troupe of 17 who jump in with confidence. There’s not a weak link to be seen, and their strong character work helps to fill in the gaps where more exposition might have gone.
O’Mahony and his seventeen storytellers are so compelling in their performances that in a couple of scenes, the audience visibly struggled not to get involved in the action. We cheered along with Robin’s followers at one of his subjects’ personal triumphs, and when he asked for another volunteer to participate in his demonstration, we looked around at each other as if perhaps one of us should proceed to the stage. What fourth wall?
The play is layered and complex, the pieces fitting together slowly, methodically under O’Mahony’s watchful eye and meticulous guidance. It is a haunting indictment of our me-first culture, our blind ambition to be watchable, and our tendency to exploit “the weak” while condemning them to misfortune.
The Mars Project should have had a longer run at the State Theatre, but it’s precisely the kind of new work that will have life on other stages.