Opened Sept. 15, 2007 at the Magic Theatre
Magic Theatre heads into space with Pullman’s Expedition 6
Three stars Fascinating
Space may be the final frontier, but in theater, space is pretty much nonexistent.
Think about it: how many great plays take place in space? Until we get Star Trek: The Great Klingon Musical, not many.
That’s only part of what makes Expedition 6 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre so intriguing.
This piece of documentary theater comes with a Hollywood pedigree: it’s written and directed by the actor Bill Pullman, a familiar face from movies such as Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping. And it’s set primarily in the International Space Station, the massive working laboratory orbiting 240 miles above the earth.
Begun in 1998, this collaboration among 16 nations has been called the greatest construction project since the building of the Great Pyramids.
Pullman quickly finds drama on the Space Station by following the three astronauts of Expedition 6, which launched aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in November of 2002.
While the three astronauts — Americans Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian Nikolai Budarin — were aboard the station, the world below them was in turmoil, with the threat of a U.S. invasion of Iraq building by the day.
In February 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated only 16 minutes from its final destination, killing all seven crew members on board, the astronauts of the Space Station found themselves stranded, with all space shuttle flights grounded indefinitely.
To complicate matters even more, the Iraq War, in all its shock and awe, began in March.
How and when the astronauts get home provides the central tension in Expedition 6, but Pullman has a lot he wants to accomplish before he brings the men home.
The most striking feature of this world-premiere production, which opened Saturday, is its bold physical production. Re-creating a microgravity environment onstage is impossible, but Pullman gives us a sense of weightlessness by having his eight agile cast members flying around the stage on trapezes.
Robert Davidson’s trapeze choreography is spectacular. Through his efforts and the actors’ dance-like movement, the play truly takes flight.
Developed at the National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts among other places, Expedition 6 is ambitious to the point of overreaching.
There’s a core human story here with the stranded astronauts — played by holdovers from the Denver production, Robert Karma Robinson, Justin Walvoord and Brent Rose (whom Shotgun Players audiences might remember when he was Brent Rosenbaum) — and their wives (Sally Clawson and Nora el Samahy), but Pullman never lets the play get very personal.
There’s a cold performance aesthetic at work in this production the keeps the ensemble — which also includes Arwen Anderson, John Behlmann and Karl Hanover — fairly stiff and impersonal. The whole thing is stylized and highly choreographed, with some wonderfully inventive, simply staged moments involving video, projections and office furniture. The poetry of the whole endeavor is further underscored by live musicians Yueh-Yin on piano and Roy Whelden on the viola de gamba.
Pullman’s script, which wants very much to bring politics and religious omens into the mix, keeps draining the humanity and tension from the story.
But the sheer force of the story and its inherent drama — the astronauts attempt escape on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was supposed to land in Kazakhstan — is utterly compelling, and because there was so much else going on in the world at the time (“Mission Accomplished” and all that), this space drama was almost completely ignored, so it’s fresh and exciting.
There’s an Apollo 13 quality to the drama, and maybe that’s what Pullman was trying to avoid, so he decided to go the more intellectual, more performance art route and emphasize the world politics (not to mention numerous mentions of a black hole destroying a star).
But the politics — at least the chaos of it all — comes through without having to bang the drum so incessantly, and it reminds us how vital it is, especially in times of strife, we not lose sight of things like the space program, which has always been inherently hopeful for the future.
For information about Expedition 6, visit www.magictheatre.org.
For information about the real Expedition 6 and the International Space Station, check out the following links:
– Chris Jones’ Esquire article about Expedition 6
– The official NASA Web site with Expedition 6 videos
– An article about Don Pettit’s innovative creations
Here’s one of Don Pettit’s videos from the Space Station: he’s demonstrating eating peanut butter and honey in zero gravity.