The following article contains minor spoilers for the University Players’ production of “X” by Alistair McDowall.
Five people stranded on an extraterrestrial space-station. Trapped in a sterile white hell with nothing but themselves, a monotonous mechanical rumbling, and a looming red digital clock.
That’s “X” – the latest endeavor of the University Players. A play about melancholia, time, and sanity.
The crew consisting of Gilda, Ray, Cole, Clark, and Mattie, each coming from different backgrounds and with varying expertise in their respective scientific fields, were send to an outpost on Pluto. After the complete collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, humanity was forced to disperse into all corners of the known universe. Mother Earth is just a vague memory of its past beauty; it might even be uninhabitable or “not worth going back to”, as crew member Ray concludes.
We enter the space station 3 months after the last contact from Earth and are immediately thrown into an argument between second-in-command Gilda and captain Ray – the clock shows 23:05.
Gilda, screaming in disbelief how something has to be wrong with the comms, is quickly interrupted by Ray remarking how they had this exact conversation several times already: regular contact between Earth and the station ceased and the promised shuttle to pick them up was nowhere to be seen.
The scene and every following one plays in the kitchen/living room of the station and is – except for the black and white checkered floor and a few color accents – exclusively held in sterile white, almost like an operating room. The only things that disturb this monotony are the ever-present buzzing sounds of the station and a red-ish, X-like smear on one of the walls.
The next scene in the morning, while the clock shows 9:56, introduces the rest of the crew being equally on edge as Gilda and Ray. Board technician Clark, who seems to have given up completely, sitting there in his pajama instead of his blue and grey worker uniform, is being berated by Cole to check the comms for possible damage once again. Like Ray, Clark reacts similarly annoyed, shouting that ‘everything works perfectly fine, there just wouldn’t be anyone on the receiving end’. Mechanic Mattie, who was silently chewing on dry cereal in the meantime, tries to raise the mood a little by encouraging Clark to tell his childhood story of how he touched “it”. After some initial resistance, Clark eventually gives in and tells, for the hundredth time, his story of how his uncle pushed him through a crowd of armed men and raised him up to a truck to touch “it”. We viewers shortly after learn that that “it” isn’t some sort of extraterrestrial creature but the last tree on earth.
As a cause of their isolation the crew members confront their situation differently: Ray escapes into his memories, Clark tries to fight the boredom by either sleeping or annoying his crew members, and Gilda and Cole look for an occupation to overpower their panic. Only Mattie seems to enjoy her daily routine of checking the life conservation systems, which she jokingly calls the “girls”. Over the course of what we can only assume to be several months, we get short excerpts of the crew’s life, encountering Clark and his father figure Ray holding a philosophical debate over whether certain things are worth remembering or not and Mattie and Gilda talking about how to fight the stress by “playing DJ sets”…
An unknown time period later, we hear that Ray has died and the crew has been reduced to 4 members. We don’t know the cause of his death but assuming he was the oldest member, the viewer assumes it’s due to old age. While the viewer recognizes some unsettling things, such as randomly appearing or disappearing soup cans, glitching clock times, or Mattie staring at Clark in the middle of the night while he cleans the mysterious “X” smear off the wall, the crew doesn’t seem to notice any irregularities. Except for Cole. After yet another argument she freaks out and forces ever- annoying Clark to watch the clock. After several seemingly endless seconds the clock suddenly glitches out and resets all digital clocks from 17:47 to 5:16. This completely freaks out Clark and the rest of the crew as the final constant on board has been shattered: The concept of time itself. After this revelation the crew members slowly start confessing the irregularities they’ve kept as secrets to themselves thus far: Confusing their experiences with those of the other crew members, hearing weird noises, and lastly Ray’s story of a mysterious girl walking on the planet’s surface.
This is where all hell breaks loose. Nobody trusts each other anymore and not even their own mind: Who are they? What have I forgotten? Do I have a daughter or a son? How many crew members were there even in the first place? And who or what is X?
I thoroughly enjoyed the play to the fullest. The way the characters were portrayed was fantastic. From formerly bored space pilots to disturbed and panicking shells of their former selves, the viewer could perfectly follow each character’s development.
Sound and lighting were also extraordinary: I never thought that silence itself could become so genuinely scary.
Additionally, the performance and even acrobatic skills of the actors were extraordinary.
The different crew members each shone with their specific traits which only emerged and developed over the course of the show.
“X” was a great and scary experience that left both of us thinking about it for hours and made me double check my closet thrice before going to sleep.
10/10 would highly recommend.
“X” is a play by Alistair McDowall. The University Players perform their production four more times, including tonight:
February 1/3/4/7, 7:30pm at the Audimax (Von-Melle-Park 4). Tickets are available at the Unikontor (Allende-Platz 1) or at the shows.
Lennart was listening to “Let It Be Me” by Steve Aoki & The Backstreet Boys, and Brennan Heart, while writing this review.