Forged in a niche online fantasy forum, real passions and rivalries take hold as members navigate shared pasts and an uncertain future. Breaking free from social webs — even chosen ones — isn’t so simple in this trans-centered, proudly geeky new play.
In its world premiere from The Shattered Glass Project, All New Cells runs through June 18 at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson.
Maybe I need some rehab, or maybe just need some sleep
I’ve got a sick obsession, I’m seeing it in my dreams
— Your Love Is My Drug (Ke$ha)
One of the (many) joys of queerness that isn’t talked abut nearly enough is the act of complete reconstruction of one’s ego.
What you are is not what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
— @Tyreljwill (Tyrel Jackson Williams)
Becoming is exhausting.
— All New Cells
Its title refers to the body’s point of full reinvention, but at the heart of All New Cells, a world premiere play by Aliza Goldstein, is its opposite: a state of being stuck, obsessed with narratives (and people) that may or may not be true. It’s set in a world of online message boards, whose members create elaborate interconnected stories for their characters. But the motivations of the members themselves aren’t so easily confined to fantasy.
All New Cells lives in the very strange in-between of two of my favorite recent plays: the probably-a-cult-classic-already She Kills Monsters (by Qui Nguyen), and the freshly-set-free-from-a-parent’s-hoarded-basement Hometown Boy (by recently-former Seattleite Keiko Green).
With She Kills Monsters, the accord is immediate and apparent. Here we have a cohort of young geeks who know each other mostly in alternate realms, through collective storytelling carried out online; a good chunk of them are queer, trans, non-binary, undetermined or never revealed; and they face an unexpected void when their de facto champion dies suddenly.
The similarities with Hometown Boy, in contrast, creep up only gradually, but they’re doozies. There are not-so-distant hurts, buried secrets, and stolen youth. There’s anxiety that’s bubbling underneath, then surges. There’s a big mess as all is revealed. There are characters we know might wallow forever, ones we hope find healing, and ones who just need to run. Get out while you can.
The connective tissue between the three might be that sense of unexpected investment: willing these characters to get their shit together, and do it now, before it’s too late.
And while the subject matter spread around the three — death, identity, secrets, escape — is weighty, their focus on characters trying to find themselves means the show retains hope and doesn’t feel too heavy. That, despite its (rightful) content warnings, means All New Cells isn’t the play to leave you wrecked for the rest of the night. But it might leave you thinking the week after.
Unlike the fantasy quests of, say, She Kills Monsters, there’s no clear hero-and-villain story in All New Cells. Its characters are too human (read: messy) for that. There’s an identifiable “bad one,” for sure; but when that character is also the most idolized (and idealized) among them, the battle lines aren’t so easy to define. Jealousy, regrets, immaturity, and trying to figure it all out are the stronger motivations here than a sense of pure evil.
It’s best to let the plot points unfold naturally with this one, but it’s no spoiler to say that much revolves around the fallen leader, Lux (Zenaida Rose Smith), whose sudden death leaves a void the others are left puzzling over how to fill. But as Smith-as-Lux steadfastly refuses to stay off the stage, appearing through flashbacks and creepy hauntings, the others remain firmly in her orbit as she swings convincingly between cool-as-ice confidence and desperation unhinged. In her wake, one of them will grapple with their shared past. One of them will crumple under the loss of a longed-for future. And one will marvel at how the fallout all landed at their feet.
Their tales are a tangled web: dealing with regrets they’ve all had a hand in creating; trying, and failing, to set boundaries; and shedding ill-fitting prescribed identities as each finds their own. (For all of them, that’s part of the shared game. For Nils specifically, that’s also coming into his own as a young trans man.) It’s a look at who holds the power, and why, and how they wield it and maintain or lose it. It’s a blur of reality and fantasy, and what happens when the two get too hard to split out.
For better or worse, these characters are all interconnected, co-dependent, and up in each other’s space through their online web, even when spatially distant. Visually, that’s obvious from the start, with clever set design by Rebecca O’Neil (who’s also the company’s Artistic Director) that keeps their worlds closely connected but separate — like cells. Lighting (Chih-Hung Shao) and sound (Madelyn Zandt) signal smartly who’s in the same virtual room at any given time, whether it’s a friendly meeting or an attack. Props galore (from Jessamyn Bateman-Iino) give a sense of the characters’ identities without getting in their way; they also make it a fun physical space to look at. Same goes for the costumes (designed by Fawn Bartlett). And a quick visual cue reveals whether certain sentiments are delivered in daylight or veiled with anonymity.
In this largely ensemble-driven show, it’s the characters’ play off of one another in this virtual hotbed that keeps things moving fast. Director Alison Kozar finds the right balance of capturing extremes of anxious youth without it getting exhausting to watch, and brings out the push/pull of closure, emotional progress, and guilt in abandonment that are core to the story’s themes. Kay Taylor Yelinek’s Moody, who’s the youngest of the bunch (particularly emotionally), is often the most devious but also innocent to the power dynamics at play. Jasmine Lomax’s Aeon is the most maternal, but perhaps most asleep on the watch. Kasper Cergol’s Nils seems most uncertain of who he’ll grow into, but also clearest on what he’s determined to avoid.
This is a messy (by design) play, reflective of our shared messy human state — however much we long for order and predictability in our tales.
In the playwright’s note, Goldstein observes that even when presenting a gaming world wholly unknown to many, “specificity is the root of universality.”
The assertion that any story is “universal” usually makes me cringe, because so often it’s code for overlooking both the nuance and the context of someone else’s story in order to find yourself in it. (There was a good long run of Seattle’s White audience members using talkbacks to exalt the “universality” of Black-written, -centered, and -performed stories, for example, as if it couldn’t have meaning unless a White viewer might as easily be the protagonist reflected back in it. I don’t actually know if that’s gotten better or if I’m just better at leaving talkbacks.)
But the playwright here finds the sweet spot. Nils’ story retains the uniquely trans experience of others insisting on the real you that was never you, for example; it doesn’t get all melted down for the sake of “universality.” Meanwhile, other general points of entry abound; and though it all takes place and derives context in a niche fantasy world, you don’t have to know the rules of the game or have a bag of 12-sided dice in order to find personal truth in this story. Pain is universal. Regret is universal. And, if we’re lucky, getting to a place of shrugging them off, or at least specific burdens of them, is universal, too.
All New Cells from The Shattered Glass Project runs through 6/18 at Theatre Off Jackson in Seattle’s International District. Tickets $0-$55 (sliding scale available to all), here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre main entrance is down a flight of stairs, but is wheelchair accessible through an alley entrance — please contact theatre ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with intermission.
* Coincidentally, a solid production of She Kills Monsters opened this weekend at Redmond’s SecondStory Repertory (and runs through 6/25). To make it a fantastical double-feature, find those tickets here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.