By Holli Harms
Jane Wagner’s, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe first opened on Broadway 37 years ago in 1985 as a vehicle for Lily Tomlin. It won numerous awards and was noted for its controversial feminist views. It is now almost a quarter into the 21st Century and we are, for the most part, a much more sophisticated audience. We are also an audience that has lived through and continues to live through a worldwide pandemic. Our world in the last two years has collapsed in on itself. What we took for granted we no longer do, or we at least try not to. Mostly what we took for granted was us, our unique need and desire for companionship, our need for the feeling of importance, that we can make a change, to help someone be more than what they are, helping ourselves see better what is reflected in our mirrors, and that is what Wagner’s play is ultimately about – us. Our beauty, as well as, our ways of getting lost in our muck, our ways of getting lost in our ridiculous obsessions, and our need to be with others like us, such as together in a live audience.
Your guide for a night into the realm of us, especially the Womanhood of us, is Trudy, a homeless woman who by her own account decided to choose insanity as it offers freedom she had not felt before. “I can take reality in small doses, but as a lifestyle, I found it too confining.” Trudy’s “before” life was as part of the working world pushing, pounding forward to get the promotion, the money, the prestige. The desire to be seen. However, Trudy allows herself, possibly wills herself, to lose her mind and with that loss finds a new kind of freedom. Is that not what we are seeing right now with so many quitting their jobs where they are no longer feeling fulfilled? The need for freedom to find fulfillment.
Trudy channels women and a man from different backgrounds. As the evening continues the characters weave their lives together creating a multi-layered quilt.
The strength of all of these characters is brought to life by the aptly named Cecily Strong. Strong, an SNL regular and star of Schmigadoon, is making her stage debut and knocking it out of the proverbial ballpark. Her strength and presence are both powerful and commanding. She is embodying each character with such specificity that we know them as separate entities, life forms. Her generous, often hilarious, comedic presence holds us in the palm of her hands for the tight ninety-minute production of storytelling and poetic scientific observations.
In Strong’s performance and Wagner’s apt writing the audience is right there with the characters … well sort of… the overly produced production heavy with props, costume changes, music, and lighting often took me away instead of bringing me in and weakens story and performance. Less is more is a truth that holds firm. Simply, bravely, let the words and the performer take us on the journey. Let the talks of “goosebumps” and “art” and “soup” and life allow flight without the distractions of the theatrical bits and pieces.
At the end of the play, the aliens Trudy has befriended and has been showing what we earthlings are all about, tell her what they have taken from her teachings, and their observations are profound, and specific about us right now, in this present time of ours. I was in tears and the rest of the audience in cheers and whoops. We are all struggling with who and what we are and it is nice to be able to reflect on humanity and the part we play in it.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is back with Cecily Strong and we are the better for it so go, enjoy, and relish good writing and acting and remember who we really are.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner, Directed by Leigh Silverman, Choreographed by James Alsop, presented by Alex Poots, Artistic Director and CEO, and Madani Younis, Chief Executive Producer
Starring Cecily Strong
Production: Christine Jones and Mary Hamrick (Co-set Design) Anita Yavich (Costume Design) Stacey Derosier (Lighting Design) Elisheba Ittoop ( Sound Design/Composer) Justin Scribner (Production Stage Manager), Lily Tomlin, and Jane Wagner (Executive director)
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe are available at theshed.org
Health and Safety:
Vaccination and masking requirements for live performances: Audience members 5 years and older must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before the date of the performance. Acceptable proof of vaccination includes a CDC-issued vaccination card, the NYS Excelsior Pass, the Clear Health Pass, and the NYC COVID Safe App, in addition a government-issued photo ID is required for visitors 18 years and older.
Visitors must wear a properly fitting mask covering their nose and mouth at all times while in The Shed, except when dining/drinking at Cedric’s in the lobby.