"See You Next Doomsday," Planet Ant's new sci-fi road comedy, started as a joke.
"The genesis of the entire idea was that Hal (Soper, the theater's owner) doesn't like time travel, so we were like, let's just write a show that's about time travel," says the play's co-writer, Mike McGettigan. "It made us laugh really hard, the idea of doing that purposely."
From there McGettigan and Shawn Handlon, who have more than 50 original productions between them, embarked on the ambitious task of writing a sprawling apocalyptic comedy for a small space on a tiny budget.
"Doomsday" follows Oliver, who has been stranded on a hellish future earth ravaged by multiple catastrophes: a supervolcano, a comet and an alien invasion, to name a few. He fights off threats ranging from cannibals to robots in order to hitch a ride off the dying planet on the spaceship of a genial alien named Richard Gere.
Handlon says the process of writing the show was the perfect excuse for both writers to bond over their shared love of science fiction and pay homage to some of their favorite sci-fi stories and films.
"We referenced so many movies while we were writing it," Handlon says. "We name-dropped 'The Terminator' series because they have time travel in them. 'Mad Max.' I put myself through those Kevin Costner ones (laughs). There's even a tribe of children akin to 'Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.' And it also kind of feels like a post-apocalyptic 'Romancing the Stone.'"
That reference to Robert Zemeckis' classic action-romance movie might sound a bit out of place, but the writers didn't want to alienate the crowd with a torrent of sci-fi geek references. They were very careful not to let their high concept script get too far out of hand, making a conscious effort to put the characters first.
"It has elements of sci-fi, but each scene is about a relationship," Handlon says. "Each scene is an active moment for someone in it, so there's still that feel of being grounded and actually telling a story of relationships more than anything."
Though the writers said they strove for a laugh a minute with their script, they didn't want the humor to get in the way of crafting a compelling emotional arc for their protagonist.
"He has kind of a hard time just self-actualizing," McGettigan says. "He's just stuck in a rut and he doesn't know what he wants to do. He lets life happen to him, not going for what he wants. And by the end, he's trying to get what he actually wants in life. Which is something I can definitely relate to."
"All he's doing is surviving, making money to pay bills and not doing anything else," Handlon adds. "And he finds himself in a world where survival means something very different."
In some ways Oliver's struggle mirrors the experience of local writers and performers like Handlon and McGettigan, who have had to come to terms with the fact that their passions might not be able to pay the bills. Still, Handlon says he and his colleagues at Planet Ant are dedicated to contributing unique, quality entertainment to the community, in spite of the financial uncertainty.
"We come from the Second City system, and Second City was all about theater for the common people, holding a mirror up to society," Handlon says. "It's a $20 ticket to come and watch a show that is unlike anything else in theater, or TV, or movies. It's not like when you go to see a comedy movie and you laugh maybe three times. We earnestly try to get a laugh a minute. It's an experience that's so much more fulfilling than watching something on Netflix."
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
'See You Next Doomsday'
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday April 24-26 and May 1-2
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck