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Now Playing: 'Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)'

Do little green men cavort about during Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)? No. Jay Scheib's fantasia about science's efforts to launch manned flights to the red planet is inspired by the fact that such a thing looks increasingly likely. Scheib, an associate professor of music and theatre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is not joking when he calls the piece a satire, but notes, "We have a very serious sense of humor."

Untitledmars For example, the agenda of the Mars Society, a nonprofit created in 1998 to encourage the exploration and eventual human settlement of the red planet, is especially significant to the piece. Yet there's also whimsy: At one side of the stage is a huge replica of a prototype vehicle that would, proponents say, carry a crew to Mars and serve as a home there for 18 months after landing. On the opposite side of the stage is a simulated office environment where other scenes occur. At center: pure emptiness, where just about anything might go on. And at the edge of the playing space — not quite an apron but close enough in this typical P.S. 122 black box — a bank of tables and computers, a semiotic allusion to NASA, one could conjecture.

"We go back and forth between documentary sections and a narrative that's essentially about a guy trying to score big on a real estate deal," Scheib explains. The documentary element in part involves a screen affixed to the upstage wall showing footage of Dr. Robert Zubrin, one of the most vocal advocates of a manned Mars mission, discussing Mars Direct, which he co-founded, and his controversial proposal to have humans utilize the Martian atmosphere to create whatever they'll need to survive, including water, oxygen, and fuel. There's also footage of human beings currently living in a simulated Martian environment — called a Mars Analogue Research Station — operating in Utah; there's another one in the Canadian Arctic. Untitled Mars, also salutes the science fiction of Philip K. Dick.

"I've tried to borrow a lot of examples from different exercises, because people have lost it living in intensely confined situations in these simulated environments," Scheib says. "As they will on Mars, people will have to deal with a great deal of boredom and repetitive tasks. One thing that hasn't been simulated, for example, is a conversation between someone on Earth and someone on Mars. It could take eight to 45 minutes between one sentence and one response, which would make for a long conversation. So in the show, I do live interviews via Skype with different scientists each night. In one scene we sort of set up a situation for meeting a Martian."

The international flavor of the production is particularly noteworthy. Scheib has invited fellow avant-garde stage artists from Serbia, Germany, Romania, and Pakistan; the Budapest company Pont Muhley has collaborated directly with Scheib on the work's development. In other words, just what you'd expect from someone whose previous directorial efforts have provocative titles such as Addicted to Bad Ideas; Peter Lorre's Twentieth Century; Falling and Waving: A Digital Opera; and The Vomit Talk of Ghosts

My Favorite Martian

Being on the MIT faculty put Scheib in the orbit of students studying theatre and science. He became intrigued, he says, "by the first student who said, 'I want to be the first woman on Mars.' So I dug deeper and started asking students, 'If you could go to Mars, would you, even if only one way?' It wouldn't be a suicide mission but a safety precaution, since if a manned Mars mission was successful — you beat the odds — would you want to risk flying back to Earth?" Most students said they'd go.

"So I found myself learning more about the large network of individuals worldwide, all working on solving issues related to a crewed mission to Mars," Scheib adds. "Sort of simultaneously, I was beginning to work on a new series of projects under a banner I call Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems." Zahra Khan, a graduate student at MIT, told Scheib about the Mars Analogue Research Stations. "So then I proposed — with me being pretty flippant and partially as a joke — that maybe I apply to be a part of one of the missions, to do a sociological experience where I'd ask crew members if, instead of testing out a GPS system or performing the kinds of tests they do, to play out scenes from science-fiction novels about life on Mars to see what would happen," he says. "We found out it would be difficult to have an affair in a spacesuit."

Curiously, Scheib observed that while the volume of science-fiction material relating to interplanetary travel is large, "on the science side, the material is even more massive. I discovered a lot of the science side is actually more out there than the science-fiction side." Hence the incorporation of the Zubrin clips.

But why should humankind visit and/or colonize Mars to begin with? Is there an implied assumption to this piece that man will have done such a spectacular job ruining the Earth — through the environment, through war — that the trip would really be about saving civilization? "It's not really a disaster, survival, or abandon-ship scenario," Scheib replies. "But rather, as Zubrin puts it, the fact that our civilization currently has the capacity to build an interstellar society, so we should. If it would cost us 17, 18 billion dollars to begin with, why shouldn't we? Wouldn't it make more sense to do that than occupy Iraq? When we think about sheer human endeavor, about something not confined to any given nation, why not?"

Indeed. And that's how the next two projects Scheib envisions will be created. The next piece, he says, will be about simulating Earth on Mars and finding theatrical ways to explore urban-planning theories. The final piece in the series will be about simulating Earth on Earth, using science fiction again as fodder, as well as the idea of artificial intelligence. After that? Most likely a trip to the stars.

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change) runs through April 27 at P.S. 122, 150 First Ave., NYC. Tickets: (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.ps122.org.

--Leonard Jacobs

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