Renaissance Theaterworks brings an immersive original sci-fi drama to the stage this Spring as it presents playwright Reina Hardy’s Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven. A young girl is contacted by an advanced supercomputer Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Evidently she’s been chosen to guide humanity into the stars. The young girl must deal with the ominous nature of her destiny in a complex story refreshingly brought to life by a talented cast on a wistfully dazzling visual space rendered on a projected digitally-rendered backdrop by scenic and lighting designer Jason Fassl.
Some of what is seen on the digital backdrop is positively jaw-dropping. Of particular note here is a tour through the galaxy by way of vast, intergalactic intelligence and impressive Josh Schmidt sound design. It’s not often that science fiction makes it to a local stage. Thanks to Hardy and Renaissance, the genre is ushered to the Broadway Theatre Center with wonder, respect and a great deal of genuine emotion.
Nicolet High School Junior Reese J. Parish stars as Annie Jump--a 13 year-old girl who is dealing with all the complexities of life on the leading edge of the 21st century. She’s a small town girl with great potential. Parish has a sparklingly active energy in the role. Annie is remarkably earthbound playing a very real girl dealing with a very fantastic situation. It’s always impressive when a high school kid can capably take the center of a stage in a prominent production like this. Parish is admirably poised in the role, serving as a very warm emotional center to a fantastic sci-fi story with a very human heart.
Rachael Zientek is dazzlingly charismatic as the super intelligent ETI. Advanced alien intelligence has come in many forms in the history of sci-fi. In the late ‘50s Julius Schwartz envisioned alien intelligence woking alongside intelligent life in the form of green rings. Author Philip K. Dick experienced alien intelligence as a beam of vastly intelligent pink light that shot directly into his brain. Some time after that in the late ’70s, Douglas Adams thought hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings might like to take the form of a pair of lab mice named Frankie and Benjy. Reina Hardy goes for something much more down-to-earth and understandable...she has decided that an advanced alien intelligence might like to appear as a typical American mean girl. This form clearly makes the most sense for an advanced alien intelligence.
The intelligence in question is named Althea and she has really great hair. The clever, little premise of a vastly intelligent E.T.I. In the form of an endlessly bored mean girl is fun, but only as entertaining onstage as the actress in the role. Zientek is great fun as the hyper intelligent mean girl who literally knows everything. (Her reaction to Annie's question about string theory is deliciously adorable.) Zientek has a wise playfulness about her onstage that serves the role well. The underlying humanity of the ETI comes across with a very approachable kind of perfection as Zientek interacts with Annie. She knows with perfect certainty that Annie is just exactly the kind of genius who could take humanity to that next major step in human evolution, but there’s a mystery resting deeper within Althea that Zientek coaxes our of the corners of a very beautiful performance.
Jonathan Gillard Daly is warmly intellectual as Annie’s father Dr. Jump. Daly brings a fearlessly passionate resonance to the production as a very brilliant man suffering from mental illness. Jarrod Langwinski plays to other ends of the dynamic as KJ Urbanik a 14-year-old computer genius who Annie encounters in her journey. Karen Estrada rounds out the ensemble in roles that cast a few different angles of emotionally clever authority to Annie’s world.
Rendering a story involving fate, humanity, super-genius and coming-of-age dramatic elements to the stage all at the same time would be a daunting task for anyone, but director Pam Kriger does an admirable job of finding a balance between the wonder of fantasy and the reality of human emotion in a very satisfying trip to the theatre. Sci-fi isn’t often brought to the stage. A show like this doesn’t come along all that often.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven runs through April 21st in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance Theaterworks