In the throne room of a mad, power-hungry emperor, a scientist reports that he's found a way to rebuild a mutilated soldier into an unstoppable killing machine.
The emperor summons the cyborg to his chamber, but what follows isn't a strategy session about future conquest. It's a conversation about the costs of war.
"It's about science run amok and how in a time of war we justify just about everything," said David Dean Bottrell, cofounder and coproducer of Sci-Fest L.A., a festival of one-act science-fiction plays opening Thursday in Hollywood.
Walter Koenig, who needs no introduction to sci-fi fans as Chekov in the original "Star Trek," will star as the cyborg-inventing scientist in four performances of "Efficiency."
Skeptics might wonder how well science fiction translates to the stage without the kind of special effects that drive the genre on film and TV, but Bottrell and festival cofounders Michael Blaha and Lee Costello saw the possibilities after stumbling upon a short story by Ursula Le Guin.
"It was a first-person piece that was one of the most chilling stories I've ever read in my whole life," Bottrell said. "And it had a surprise ending."
The piece clearly wasn't suited for screen adoption, said Bottrell, an actor, but "you could put someone on stage telling the story, and it would work."
So they did. And they built out the first Sci-Fest last year by soliciting more plays online. They received about 350 submissions, of which 10 were staged.
"I had to drag my agent and manager to the festival, but the next day their response was they loved it because all the stories were very human," Bottrell said. "They just happened to take place in a bizarre universe."
This year, producers received nearly 700 submissions. The 10 that were selected have been compiled into two programs that will rotate nights.
Some familiar names also pop up on the festival's list of playwrights.
"One day I was sitting at my computer and a message popped up saying Clive Barker is sending you a play," Bottrell said.
Which is how Barker's "The Departed" will join a lineup with Neil Gaiman's "The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds," a film noir spoof set in the world of fairy tales — more specifically, the investigation of Humpty Dumpty's untimely demise.
Another play revives an amusingly prophetic 1950 radio drama about humans turning to machines called Logics to answer practically any question, Siri-style. (The problem: A safety measure to prevent bad questions — like, "How should I kill my wife?" — ultimately fails.)
Bottrell said "Efficiency," written by Perley Poore Sheehan and Robert H. Davis and originally produced in 1917 in New York, is arguably the first modern science-fiction play and possibly one of the earliest depictions of a half-human, half-robot cyborg. While researching the play — a hit in its day — festival organizers discovered an early published edition that includes a letter of praise from none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.
At last year's Sci-Fest, the audience talkers were plays with not only good scripts but also strong visual elements, including a production of Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope," about astronauts accidentally set adrift in space. Bottrell described it as "Gravity" without the happy ending.
"The whole play is what they choose to talk about in the final moments of their lives," he said.
To simulate astronauts floating in zero gravity, actors wore dark space suits and were lighted only by LEDs inside their helmets, so all that the audience could see were faces floating in a projected field of stars. Bungee cords hooked to the back of the space suits allowed actors to gently lean and drift.
"I'm telling you, we left the theater and went into space," Bottrell said. "It was an amazing effect, and we did it for a dollar and a half."
And this year? Expect a giant space bug to land, a head to get ripped off and, of course, aliens to invade.
The festival aims not only to bring sci-fi to the stage but also to create new sci-fi content. The festival will award its Tomorrow Prize to the best 1,500-word science-fiction story written by a Los Angeles County high school student. Five finalists ("all girls," Bottrell said) will hear their eight- to 10-minute stories read aloud on stage May 16.
A sleep-deprived Bottrell said all the last-minute anxiety over just exactly how a giant space bug will take the stage this week, among other details, dissipates when he thinks of his inspiration, Bradbury.
"People who trivialize sci-fi as a genre are missing the point," Bottrell said, paraphrasing the sci-fi legend, "because science fiction in any form merely takes us to a place where we can consider our collective future. When faced with some outside threat, how are we as humans going to respond?"
And if that's not enough to draw sci-fans to the theater, there's this: Stan Lee taped the preshow video message telling audience members to turn off their cellphones.
What: The second annual science-fiction one-act play festival. Two programs play on alternate days; each program consists of four or five plays lasting 10 to 20 minutes each
When: Thursday-May 31
Where: Acme Theater, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $20-$25 online, $25-$30 at the door