Science fiction has long held a certain allure for artists outside of the mainstream to tackle contemporary social issues in the guise of genre fantasies, from the underground films of the Kuchar brothers to the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra. Even a mainstream sci-fi offering like “Star Trek,” as Dito van Reigersberg points out, was the first scripted TV series to feature an interracial kiss.

“I think sci-fi is a testing ground,” says van Reigersberg, a founding member of Pig Iron Theatre Company. “It’s a place where things that we’re a little nervous about in reality can be tested out in a place where the rules and consequences are slightly different — especially if you’re in a group that wants to be the rules to be different.”

Pig Iron’s latest show, “I Promised Myself to Live Faster,” is the ground-breaking Philly company’s own twist on the genre, described by van Reigersberg as “a crazy gay sci-fi fantasia.” The new piece, opening tonight at FringeArts, involves a gay man charged by a group of outer space nuns to rescue the Holy Gay Flame from an evil emperor. It draws on the fact that early sci-fi films were also known as “space operas,” and uses the heightened, colorful emotions of opera.

The show was inspired by the work of New York theater artist Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, who died of AIDS in 1987. In Ludlam’s work as a hairy-chested drag queen, van Reigersberg found a kindred spirit to his own hirsute alter ego, Martha Graham Cracker. 

“For a long time I kept Martha and Pig Iron separate,” van Reigersberg says. “But we started to wonder what it would be like if the spirit of Martha was the starter dough for a piece, and then we threw it to the Pig Iron ensemble to see what kind of sourdough bread we would get out of it.”

 

The message

While van Reigersberg describes the play, with its over-the-top extraterrestrial sexuality and hyper-stylized visuals, as “pleasurably dumb,” he also points out that a more serious thread runs throughout, hinting at the toll of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. 

“Gay bars in the ’70s were much more sumptuous and fabulous. In the ’80s, with the advent of AIDS, there was a push toward a more masculine ideal, a death of the fabulous and a squelching of a more exuberant impulse. There’s something about that change that haunted us, so there’s a tragic molten lava at the core of this piece that overflows by the end.”

 

If you go

"I Promised Myself To Live Faster"
May 22 to 31
FringeArts
140 N. Columbus Blvd.
$29-$36, 215-413-1318
www.fringearts.com