Friday, October 19, 2012


 Full disclosure: Shawn Davis, who plays the titular--if very briefly seen--character, is a good friend of mine.

Ostensibly, however, Spaceman (playing through Sunday, October 21 at St. Marks Theater and produced by Incubator Arts Project) is a one-woman show that focuses on Molly Jenkins, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Molly's husband, Harry, disappeared some years earlier on a similar mission, and as much as she misses him, longs for him, mourns for him, Molly remains furious with him for taking that fatal spacewalk without remembering to attach his tether. That she would literally die to touch him again, despite her wrenching anger, is just one of the many dichotomies explored in this complicated, interesting play.

Ably played by Erin Treadway, Molly is a remarkably accomplished woman, once described by her chief competition for the chance to fly alone to Mars as "a machine" that he just couldn't beat. Yet, of course, she is not a machine; she is body, mind, and soul, and she's having increasing difficulty with all three as she hurdles through space. The spaceship, her home for months now, is increasingly confining, especially now that something is wrong with the air circulation and her space suit has begun to smell as horribly as she knows she does. The people she can communicate with back on Earth have begun to exhaust and irritate her; the further she gets from our planet, the more futile and stupid and doomed it  and everything on it seems. Her daily tasks are mind-numbingly dull. And while space is empty and perfectly silent, her capsule is almost unceasingly, irritatingly loud: there are beeps and pings and sirens and robotic voices and tinny human ones and, sometimes, almost unbearable feedback that shrieks forth from the many computers, radios, and consoles with no warning. Molly longs for silence and solitude, but at the same time desperately craves companionship, connections, and intimacy. The desires for both, conflicting though they may be, eventually begin to eat away at her in increasingly dangerous ways. So too do the connections between commerce and individual freedoms; love, loss, and death; ration and emotion; sanity and insanity; and, most compellingly, spirituality and science. This is a very small play that takes on and wrestles with absolutely huge dichotomies.

I am not convinced that it succeeds as well with some of them as it does with others--as noted above, the most carefully, satisfyingly explored topics relate to the (dis)connections between space-as-science and space-as-spirit-world, as well as to the drive to make meaning out of a human existence that can seem stupid at best, and pointless at worst. "False hope can be unbearable, but it's pointless to have no hope," Molly muses near the end of the show. Yes, and yes.

I've decided that I don't care, though, that some of the themes fall somewhat shorter than others; I'm too impressed with the attempt that the whole company makes to tackle such big subjects so creatively in the first place. And anyway, it's entirely possible that some of the musings simply went over my head. As my friend Jamie (also a friend of Shawn's, and my theatergoing companion) pointed out when I noted that I found the central love story--and the depiction of gender, really--to be ultimately too conventional, it's entirely possible that Molly's love and anger for her husband was more intricately, inversely related to her sanity than I'd considered. So seriously, what do I know? The fact that I'm asking that question is, to me, the mark that I've seen something challenging and worthwhile.

Indeed, Spaceman is very well done: Erin Treadway manages to portray a woman suffering from mind-altering solitude, loneliness, and claustrophobia without dragging the audience into the maddening boredom she experiences. The sharp direction, by Spaceman playwright Leegrid Stevens, works as well to keep the audience fully engaged in--and even fascinated by--Molly's numbingly mundane tasks, despite the fact that Treadway remains seated in her tiny (beautifully designed) spaceship for most of the 100-minute show. The sound design does exactly what it should, and the weightlessness and enormity of space are depicted ingeniously.

Spaceman closes this Sunday, which is too bad; it deserves to be taken seriously. I hope, too, that the people who put it together, all of them, get taken seriously, too.

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