Originally published on John Garcia’s THE COLUMN
Amphibian Stage has produced a thoughtful, immersive piece of storytelling with Spaceman, by Leegrid Stevens. We are plunged into the world of Commander Molly Jennis, who is traveling to Mars in a space capsule. Sound greets us as we enter the theater: mission control, then a cutting of a speech by John F. Kennedy. Recorded sound is significant within the piece; the playwright is also a sound designer, and has a credit in the program for his original sound design. Viewing closed rust colored fabric-paneled doors onstage, we take out seats, still hearing recorded sound. The lights go out, the doors on stage open, and we are in the capsule, gazing at Commander Molly Jennis, (Sarah Rutan) as she sleeps in her console chair, her arms floating to simulate zero gravity. Behind and above her are windows, with moving projections of stars. We hear a noise, which awakens her, and she listens to Sid, at mission control, who alerts her to the Super Bowl game. We, like Jennis, hear transmissions in the course of the show, but never conversations. This is the first instance of the mundane at odds with the otherworldly, and always with a time delay. Jennis cannot communicate in real time: she can only react to what she hears, with all the questions, in this case, about how much time is left on the clock, and, she is understandably frustrated by the way the information is relayed to her. She is meant to absorb, and take part, but without the immediacy of being able to communicate directly.
The one exception to this is her on-board voice simulator, Jim, (think Siri) to whom she succumbs to activating in the course of the show. She has fun making him repeat lines from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and types in timely questions and rejoinders for her to react to. In this way, she, at this point in the mission, needs a comeback, even if she is the one creating it.
Seven months of life in the capsule, traveling to Mars, without being face to face with another person. This strikes a chord, in the recent pandemic, in which contact with another person was non-existent. Meetings, celebrations, conversations still occur, but without the physical presence of anyone else. Life continues without one’s being in the world, and in this case, it is apt, as she has left the earth.
There are several quantities to master in order to tell this story, and the zero gravity in the capsule is one. It is simulated with objects which float, through the use of black poles, as well as every object is meticulously secured. Movement around the space is in slow motion, and hand rails are displayed and used when needed. Eating breakfast is given elaborate narration, going into great detail about cooking eggs, and bacon, when breakfast is yellow colored egg substance in a plastic squeeze tube. Part of this exercise is to take her out of the environment she is in, using her imagination to supplement what she is given.
Jennis is constantly checking her messages, and not just to find out what is happening in the game, and listening to one, she is told to put on her suit, due to possible radiation. And she dreads doing this, because it reeks-seven months without bathing or cleaning the suit. She has wipes to both clean herself and the suit, and they are not working well. There is a disconnect between all this amazing technology developed for this event, as opposed to the fact that, in practice, things do not go perfectly, being merely tested, not used.
A general equipment check is performed, and it is reinforced that despite all these technological advances, these are the same actions to be performed at the same time, each few hours, and it is not even every day, because the light does not change inside the module. There is no sunrise or clouds or any variation in terms of the environment, apart from the temperature, which is running a little hot, without a lot of air circulating, adding to the tension of our protagonist.
“It is a daunting, rare and brave undertaking: self-assurance, frustration, grief, humor, and, ultimately, perseverance, are a number of emotional states conveyed in ninety minutes. Venture into the world of Spaceman, before the run ends, for a wildly rich experience.”
Sarah Rutan brings a fully formed individual to the stage, for what is, even with a brief intermission, a ninety-minute performance. We see Jennis in various roles: widow, daughter, employee being scrutinized, public hero. All of these bits of the past contributing to the woman in the chair. When she dons the dreaded suit, it is covered in sponsorship patches, similar to the ones NASCAR drivers wear. The costume consultant, Kathleen Culebro, and Jay Duffer, the director, must have had fun deciding which patches would wind up on her suit. The smelly suit is a giant product placement, for every time she is asked to make a transmission, these logos appear. All of the creative components must be in league with one another, in order for this tenuous production to succeed. The scenic design, by Jeff Stanfield, is clever, because there is a hint of depth to the capsule, combined with the fact that all of the electronic apparatus is visible to the astronaut, and does not distract from the performance. The projection screen designed by Philip Vilar, is constantly in motion, and varies depending on the needs of the moment. Some of the props need to appear to float on occasion, and Kaitlin Hatton makes that happen, as well as chooses the objects best suited to this show.
To give life to a very public figure by showing all that goes on behind the scenes, as well as giving a hard look at the inner mind, is a balancing act for the performer. The phrase “warts and all’ is appropriate. Jennis listens to a bit of a well-regarded 60 Minutes interview she did months ago. She sounds upbeat, her personality feels lighter, she has quick responses, in other words, she is the prefect product for the program, and is reminded that she should repeat this successful performance. She is constantly being scrutinized for any flaws or weaknesses, and the point of view of the outside world constantly invades the personal and the private.
Regarding the personal, Jennis is asked about her late husband, also a scientist, and astronaut, whose mission was not completed. Harry Jennis, (Jeff Ararat) who made her enjoy football, and whom she addresses constantly and cannot allow to absent her mind, is a presence in the piece. This is the crucial issue that must be addressed and dealt with. There is grief, but also a job to accomplish, a mission to perform. The physicality of doing this job is inextricably linked to one’s psyche. Living in these conditions could have resulted in a personality shift. It is to Rutan’s credit that she is an open wound, allowing us to view it all, and we cannot turn away.
The unknown is not only represented by this task to travel and colonize Mars, but is connected to the inner workings of the mind. Restricted in this small space, constantly monitored and scrutinized for her reactions, she is expected to be intelligent, funny, and to avoid “being boring” regarding the actual science in it all. She is told to be diplomatic when God is brought up. There is a great example of this, where, as a consultant on a game show, Survivor Space, she is brutally honest responding to the contestants, just as her critics have been with her. Her image is all. Like all celebrities, she needs the approval of her followers, but cannot reveal too much of herself. Particularly as a woman, she must be likeable in order to continue to court popularity within the media, and ultimately, with her sponsors and her superiors.
Balancing the public and employment inspection, and still addressing her own feelings, the character of Jennis, played by the actor, Rutan, has to embody all of those layers without interacting with another actor onstage. It is a daunting, rare and brave undertaking: self-assurance, frustration, grief, humor, and, ultimately, perseverance, are a number of emotional states conveyed in ninety minutes. Venture into the world of Spaceman, before the run ends, for a wildly rich experience.